The publication of Daniel Everett’s new book Language: The Cultural Tool, has brought a recurring language debate once more into the spotlight.
Everett tells the tale of how he sailed up the Amazon as a missionary to live with the Pirahã people and learn their language.
Christian teachings were lost on the tribe who number around 400 and live in 4 villages. Everett, finding them to be content with life already soon gave up preaching to them. Instead he spent 30 years in their company, learning their language and all about their culture and perspective of the world.
What’s fascinating about his observation is the language does not possess in its vocabulary words that in the Western world are used with such frequency that it would seem impossible for them not to exist.
The Pirahã have no words for numbers, so they have no concept of counting. This means no dreaded maths – amazing! They have no past tense or concept of the ancient past or distant future. They focus on the present.
They also have no words for colours, they don’t differentiate between green and blue for example and the language also doesn’t have words to distinguish between left and right.
However, all Pirahã people know the name of every single species of flora and fauna in their environment. This is because these words are central to their way of life. Not having the ability to count money has no effect on their lives because they just have no need for it or the words used to describe it.
The Pirahã people can communicate through humming, singing and whistling information to one another and their vocabulary covers everything in their own environment; anything outside of this would be useless to them.
Chomsky argues that all languages are underpinned by a universal grammar and that humans share a language instinct.
Everett believes the Pirahã language indicates an exception to Chomsky’s theory of ‘recursion’, that there is no evidence of it in this language and instead language seems to be a unique cultural tool that has evolved, crafted by speakers to meet needs.
Tim Radford however is sceptical about what Everett’s findings say about language itself, particularly as Everett is the only one who can tell us about the language.
This questions how accurate his findings are ‘‘it wouldn’t be the first time that an isolated community with an advanced sense of humour had dead-panned a visiting anthropologist.’’
The story of a group of people with amazingly little contact with the outside world, who think our way of life doesn’t sound very appealing is a somewhat unique tale. The surrounding language debate is interesting but Everett’s experiences with the Pirahã people alone will be enough to captivate interest.
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