Following up on the controversy discussed here, Geoff Pullum has posted (at Language Log) an extremely interesting letter he received from Dan Everett, who wrote the first full description of the Pirahã language (published in 1986). Geoff asked him to respond to “recent suggestions to the effect that Pirahã is just too strange to be true”; Everett says “It took me 27 years to work up the courage to say these things and I am still called a ‘Borgesian fantasist’ (and have been called much simpler things, like ‘stupid’)” and adds that linguists who were initially very skeptical came to agree with him after studying the language and people. His letter ends:
My own view then is that the case of Pirahã illustrates, perhaps as well as any example ever discussed in the literature, the kind of bi-directional causal relationship between language and culture that Boas and Sapir would have expected us to find.
There is a problem for universal grammar in all this, though. That is the non-trivial one of setting the boundary between culture, grammar, and cognition in light of examples like this where previous boundary lines have been shown to be potentially illusory.
I just left the Pirahãs a few days ago. They are oblivious to all of this attention, yet doing well as a people. However, I have heard the very disturbing news that an electric power company is thinking of using their river, the Maici, to generate power in some way. If any outside company enters their reserve (which I helped demarcate, with support from Cultural Survival, 20 years ago), this could be the end of the Pirahã people. So I hope that this attention on them right now can be used to generate some support for their survival. Examples like Pirahã illustrate very clearly the loss inherent to knowledge of our species, if such a language were to cease to exist without having been studied. It also shows, I hope, that some studies take a LONG time, perhaps the length of an entire career.
There are also links to drawings and a map.