25 May 2007

Pirahã, an exceptional language or not?

A radio programme on Pirahã, broadcast on the Radio Channel 1 of the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, on 25 May 2007, at 9.50 am.

By Hannu Reime

On the banks of the river Maici, in the far-away state of Amazonas in North Western Brazil, there lives a tribe of about 300 people called Pirahã, which is also the name of their language. They call themselves and their language hi'aiti'ihi, although I don't pretend to know how it is pronounced. Pirahã is apparently the last surviving member of a larger language family called Mura.

The Pirahã get their livelihood by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Their agriculture is rudimentary. What they need besides food, they get by barter with merchants shipping on the river. They are hunter-gatherers. Their mode of production, if that's a proper term for it, is at the same level as before the great revolution in agriculture 10 000 years ago, at a time when the human race was still small in numbers.

In the outside world far away from the primitive dwellings of the Pirahã and from the humid tropical heat, there's recently been a lively debate on these exotic people and their as exotic language. In April, this year, New Yorker magazine published a colourful story on the Pirahã with fine pictures. The popular scientific journal New Scientist, the British daily The Independent, and the German weekly Der Spiegel have all had stories on the Pirahã. Here in Finland, the daily Helsingin Sanomat told its readers last March that “the Pirahã speak by whistling and humming.”

The main theme of these and other articles published on the Pirahã has been the alleged radical exceptionality of their language. Helsingin Sanomat wrote that the Pirahã “seem to challenge many of the fundamental hypotheses that linguists and anthropologists have held on language and culture.”

The reason for the general interest in Pirahã is an article by the American linguist Daniel Everett, published in Current Anthropology in 2005. Everett is one of the very few outsiders who can speak and understand the language of the Pirahã. He started as a missionary, and has been living among the Pirahã on and off for about 30 years. His first employer was the Summer Institute of Linguistics, which is a protestant organization that translates The Bible into less spoken languages. Later he became an apostate and rejected the translation project, realizing that the spreading of the Christian Gospel among the Pirahã was a hopeless task. When he told for a Pirahã man about Jesus, the first question of the latter was: have you seen this man? The reply that Jesus lived 2000 years ago, didn't satisfy Everett's pupil.

Dan Everett got his Ph.D. on the Pirahã language at a Brazilian university. In his dissertation he did not yet present the radical conclusions on the structure of Pirahã which he has since propagated, and which were published in that article two years ago. Pirahã language sounds like this:


Here Peter Gordon, a colleague of Dan Everett, tries to teach numbers and the notion of “number” for Pirahã. You can distinguish the numerals dos, três, quatro, cinco, seis, sete, borrowed from Brazilian Portuguese.

One of the claims by Everett is that all the numerals, even such a primitive class of parts of speech as “one, two, many”, common in lots of languages, is lacking in Pirahã. Everett says that this is due to the fact that the Pirahã are unable to understand the notions of “number” and “quantity”. This is not due to any mental retardation but to the Pirahã culture where everything is here-and-now. Abstract entities and the history, which is outside of immediate experience, are foreign to the Pirahã. Everett says that he has for years tried to teach them numbers and counting without any success.

The radical exceptionality of Pirahã would be accounted for by what Everett calls “The Principle of Immediate Experience”. This would also explain another fact about which Everett is now convinced: there are no subordinate clauses in Pirahã. The property called recursion is lacking in this language. It's a property which makes it possible to build larger structures from smaller ones, and then to embed these inside same kind of structures. Sentences containing subordinate or relative clauses are examples of recursive structures: “The dog that barked at the cat that chased the mouse that ate the cheese that we bought from the grocery, ran away.” The more you stretch this sentence, the more difficult it is to process in the mind, but it's always well-formed, and at some level of analysis structurally identical to the sentence: “Fido ran away last night.” Such potentially infinite sentences are impossible in the Pirahã language, according to Dan Everett. The lack of recursion would also account for the Pirahã's inability to understand the recursive property of the number system.

The alleged exceptionality of Pirahã is, of course, the main reason for the journalistic interest in this language. Dan Everett's view on the structure of Pirahã has been challenged, however. In March of this year, the linguists Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues published an article where they analyze the structure of Pirahã in detail, and where they say they disprove every single claim by Everett. Their material is taken from Everett's own dissertation from more than 20 years ago, where he still adhered to the view that Pirahã is a “normal” human language. The critics of Everett say that Pirahã contains subordinate clauses, so it's recursive. And they don't understand the connection between the “Principle of Immediate Experience” and the lack of subordination. What else besides an immediate experience is contained in the sentence: “The apple that I'm looking at right now, is rotten.” Some of the alleged exotic features of Pirahã are also found in German, Bengali, Chinese, or Hebrew. Pirahã is a human language, neither more nor less, the critics write. 

Dan Everett has answered his critics who he calls “armchair linguists”. The tenor in his reply is more aggressive than in his earlier writings. Everett now denies the existence of universal grammar, a set of principles that come directly out of our biological nature, and that restrict the structure and form of individual languages. Languages can be studied only in connection with culture, because culture determines language completely. There's no such thing as “just a language”, he writes forcefully. And finally, he says that it's only a “banal fact” that a human child learns a language but a kitten doesn't.

True, this is only a “banal fact”. But the nature — or the world — is full of “banal facts”, starting from the observation that most objects fall towards the ground, and do not rise up to the sky or stay somewhere between the heaven and the earth. Facts may be banal but explanations behind them are seldom self-evident. 


Listen to the radio programme in Finnish

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