[xmca] Piraha language/culture controversy

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Sat Apr 14 2007 - 09:35:46 PDT

There is a remarkable article in the most recent New Yorker magazine about
Dan Everett and his work among the
Piraha of western Brazil. I tried to find a way to get the article
electronically, but seems like it will have to be scanned.
This group is the center of a widespread debate about language/culture
relations that are right at the center of many
xmca discussions. Here is a brief, inadequate account that indicates some of
what is involved.
The Piraha challenge: an Amazonian tribe takes grammar to a strange place
Science News <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200>, Dec 10,
2005 <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1200/is_24_168> by Bruce
Bower <http://www.findarticles.com/p/search?tb=art&qt=%22Bruce+Bower%22>

  Find More Results for: "piraha everett "
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When Daniel L. Everett and his wife Keren Everett started spending 6 to 8
months each year with the Piraha people of Brazil's Amazon rain forest in
1977, they hoped to decipher a language that had long stumped missionaries
in the region. By 1980, the two outsiders spoke the native tongue well
enough to field an intriguing proposal from villagers: to teach them to
count and to read. The villagers hoped that counting would prevent them from
getting cheated when trading Brazil nuts and other goods for products such
as tobacco and whiskey ferried through the area by Portuguese riverboat

So for the next few months, Daniel Everett--alinguist affiliated with the
University of Manchester in England and the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany--and Keren Everett, a
missionary with linguistic training, ran evening classes in math and
literacy for the forest dwellers. However, although the Piraha know volumes
about hunting and jungle survival, the group flunked both courses. None of
the roughly 30 people who regularly attended classes learned to count to 10.
None learned to add 3+1, or even 1+1.

Reading lessons ended abruptly when, after weeks of painstaking work, the
students managed to read a Piraha word aloud and in unison. Everyone
laughed. Daniel Everett asked what was so funny, and his students responded
that what they had just said sounded like their word for sky. That's
correct, Everett replied. The Piraha immediately became agitated and asked
to stop the lessons.

"Their motivation for attending literacy classes turned out to be, according
to them, that it was fun to be together and I made popcorn," Everett says.

Piraha problems with reading, writing, and arithmetic stemmed not from
slow-wittedness but from a cultural conviction about how to converse,
Everett proposes. From the villagers' perspective, talking should concern
only knowledge based on one's personal, immediate experience. No Piraha
refers to abstract concepts or to distant places and times.

As a result, Piraha grammar bucks all sorts of linguistic conventions,
according to Everett. The language lacks words for quantities, contains no
standard words for colors, shows no sign of expanding or combining sentences
through the use of clauses, rarely uses pronouns, employs just two tenses,
and features only a few kinship terms, which refer mainly to living

Moreover, the Piraha tell no creation myths and don't make up stories or
draw pictures. They believe in spirits that they directly encounter at
times, "but there's no great god who created all the spirits, in the Piraha
view" Everett says.

Cultural mandates to express only one's immediate experience and to shun
outsiders' knowledge have kept the Piraha population, which now amounts to
around 200 people, from learning other languages despite more than 200 years
of regular contact with Brazilians and various Amazonian groups, he adds.

Yet despite the simplicity of its grammar, the Piraha language matches other
languages in complexity, Everett says. The villagers communicate almost as
much by singing, whistling, and humming as they do with spoken words, he
reports. Moreover, they convey a rich spectrum of emotions as they speak by
systematically varying syllable intonations.

Everett lays out his argument for culture as a prime force in shaping the
unusual Piraha language in the August-October CurrentAnthropology. The eight
scientific responses published with his article range from supportive to

Everett expected criticism. His findings challenge the influential theory
that all spoken languages draw on common grammatical rules. Proponents of
that premise believe that the human brain comes equipped with grammar
networks, as a biological consequence of Stone Age evolution.

Instead, Everett champions an approach that held sway in the first half of
the 20th century. Influential anthropologists and linguists of that era
argued that cultural values mold how people talk, just as a language's
expressive power shapes a culture's traits. If that's the case, basic
elements of grammar can differ from one culture to the next, and cultural
and social forces continually alter the fundamental rules of language.

"It took me 27 years to work up the courage to say these things about Piraha
grammar," says Everett. Now, he's standing his ground.

COUNTED OUT In a particularly surprising twist, the Piraha language--unlike
any other recorded tongue--employs no numbers or other quantity terms,
Everett contends. It lacks words that would translate as all, many, most,
few, each, and every.

Words for whole and part are used only to describe specific experiences,
such as a person's plans to trade a whole snakeskin. If a piece of the skin
is removed before the transaction, villagers still i say that "the whole
thing" was traded because they're referring to the entire skin that was
available at the time of the exchange.
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Received on Sat Apr 14 10:37 PDT 2007

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