Monday, April 30, 2007

horn calls of the pirahã

One of the more gripping magazine pieces to appear recently, John Colapinto's "The Interpreter" (The New Yorker, April 16, 2007) introduces readers to Pirahã, a language spoken by the Hi'aiti'ihi, a tiny, remote Amazonian tribe whose unique linguistic features may challenge Noam Chomsky's theory of universal grammar. Travelling to Brazil with Dan Everett, a former missionary who, along with his ex-wife, Keren, are the foremost Western experts in Pirahã, the reporter pens his initial encounter with the tribe & its tongue:

"On the bank above us were some thirty people— short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations."

What the tribe does not do is use recursion, which Chomsky argues is a cognitive skill unique to the human brain & the "cornerstone of all languages." The term refers to a linguistic combining of separate ideas, as when someone states, "The monkey with the broken tail is mean." Pirahã does not permit such constructions; a speaker would instead say, "The monkey has a broken tail. The monkey is mean." After decades of noting the idiosyncrasies of Pirahã, Everett theorized that the language is created by the culture. And the Hi'aiti'ihi live completely in the present--they do not farm, as that would engender imagining a result months down the road; they do not employ a verbal past tense, & ancestors are not venerated but forgotten. "Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions--and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths," Colapinto summarizes. While I quibble with the assertion that color is abstract, this is exciting stuff indeed.

Much of "The Interpreter" focusses on linguistic academicians (all male, as it happens), & only near his conclusion does Colapinto return to Keren Everett. Perhaps she has been slighted due to her gender or because "her primary interest...remains missionary" (see for a summary of the connection between her mastering Pirahã & proselytizing); no matter the reason, it is she who provides a crucial perspective that the men with their data & their computer programs have consistently overlooked. "The key to learning the language is the tribe's singing, Keren said: the way that the group can...communicate purely by variations in pitch, stress, and rhythm." By chance, the author secretly observes a woman "intoning this extraordinary series of notes that sounded like a muted horn" as a toddler played at her feet. When he asks Dan Everett about the scene, he's told it's how tribe members sing their dreams. Fortunately, Colapinto thinks to ask Keren as well, & she excitedly explains that the woman was teaching her child how to speak. With a language as mysterious to outsiders as Pirahã, it is extraordinary that most of the scholars have neglected this obvious key to understanding.

By concentrating on the tribe's prosody, Keren was able to grasp concepts of the language that she'd struggled with for years. She began to sing along with the Hi'aiti'ihi, which eventually led to a breakthrough: " I realized, Oh! That's what the subject-verb looks like, that's what the pieces of the clause and the time phrase and the object and the other phrases feel like." Her approach greatly contrasts with, for example, that of the Chomskyan Tecumseh Fitch, whose simple grammatical experiment with tribe members does not go as anticipated, & he becomes frustrated that it confounds established theories. An openness to the unconventional is as necessary to the linguist as it is to the scientist, yet it is clear that even the most sensitive scholars allow a certain amount of cultural bias to cloud their perception of unfamiliar people.

Likewise it is disturbing that while those who study the Hi'aiti'ihi note the tribe's successful 200-year resistance to outside influences, they nevertheless persist in trying to inject bits of Western culture (examples: playing ipods to the villagers, attempting literacy classes, conducting experiments that require subjects to engage with a computer screen). Why not keep such things to a minimum rather than risk diluting the portrait of the tribe's unique characteristics?

The fascination with Pirahã continues, with Dan Everett analyzing additional data & conducting new studies even as experts in the field respond to his controversial theory that social forces can alter the structure of language. Peter Gordon's focus on the tribe's lack of a counting system, which led him to conclude in a 2003 article in Science that the Hi'aiti'ihi "cannot seem to entertain concepts of...other language[s]" has also spurred numerous debates. Many of these threads can be followed on the blog Language Log (simply google Pirahã + Language Log) & are a useful supplement to the New Yorker piece. Also, Dan Everett's personal website ( provides sources for supplemental news articles, photographs, & video clips on Pirahã.


Blogger kookaburra said...

MW--thank you for spotting the missing "is." Eternally grateful,

May 2, 2007 at 8:40 PM  

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