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.


  1. I’d love to see a list of the unusual features. Did I miss that somewhere? I see that it doesn’t have a numeral system and has an apparently unusual (how?) tonal stress system, but I couldn’t find anything beyond that.

  2. You want this paper here. (Although I don’t think it says much about the stress system, as that’s presumably not related to the cultural factors Everett thinks are behind the other stuff.)

  3. Check here for more info and links.

  4. And now Mark Liberman has posted a message from Peter Gordon, whose article on the Pirahã in Science started off this recent discussion.
    Also, for those who can’t read the abovelinked Everett paper, or don’t want to, here’s a list of “very surprising features of Pirahã grammar and culture” from the abstract:

    (i) the absence of creation myths and fiction;
    (ii) the simplest kinship system yet documented;
    (iii) the absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting;
    (iv) the absence of color terms;
    (v) the absence of embedding in the grammar;
    (vi) the absence of ‘relative tenses’;
    (vii) the borrowing of its entire pronoun inventory from Tupi;
    (vi) the fact that the Pirahã are monolingual after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv;
    (vii) the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past;
    (viii) the absence of drawing or other art and one of the simplest material cultures yet documented;
    (ix) the absence of any terms for quantification, e.g. ‘all’, ‘each’, ‘every’, ‘most’, ‘some’, etc.

  5. this may be a simple question to anwser, but if they cannot lie and there is no myth or fiction, how do they explain when someone is wrong and that information has been communicated widely; i.e. a rumor, gossip. do these not exist or how would they understand them?

  6. Jacques Guy says

    I came across mentions of Piraha last year, and I was interested of course. Of of my correspondants, a lecturer in Sao Paulo, found a copy of Everett’s 400 page book remaindered for $2, and did not resist (how could one?). He has sent me a few excerpts, and I have become suspicious enough to try to find more about Piraha. The most recent I found is http://lings.ln.man.ac.uk/Info/staff/DE/cultgram.pdf
    which I downloaded (but from another site).

    It is an article to be published in Current Anthropology.

    I suspected that Piraha was a hoax. Not from the beginning, but when I found a text entitled “Killing the Panther” Ihere: “http://lings.ln.man.ac.uk/info/staff/DE/panther.pdf”
    It does not make any sense at all.
    Then when I discovered the article mentioned above, “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã”, I knew for sure that it had to be a hoax, and its author either a fraud or a gullible mug.
    Just consider: right at the beginning, in the abstract, he writes:
    “the fact that the Pirahã are monolingual after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv…”
    But page 65 he writes:
    “Martius’s error is not as difficult to understand as it might first appear, i.e. that anyone could think that Pirahã vocabulary is/was Tupian. In my first visit to the Pirahã, they tended to give Tupian (Nheengatu) words as answers to my attempts to elicit vocabulary in their language. I might not have spotted this for a while, since this was my first field experience except that my wife, Keren Everett, speaks a Tupi language, Sateré, and told me that those words could not be Pirahã unless Pirahã was Tupian.”
    So the Pirahã spoke to him in a Tupi dialect at first, yet he says they are monolingual?
    And then, this is what he writes p.38:
    Consider the following example of what Everett (1985) calls the ‘sloppy phoneme effect’ :
    (6) tí píai ~ kí píai ~ kí kíai ~ pí píai ~ ‘í píai ~ ‘í ‘íai ~
    tí píai, etc. (*tí tíai, * gí gíai, *bí bíai) ‘me too’
    (7) ‘apapaí ~kapapaí ~papapaí ~’a’a’aí ~kakakaí ~(*tapapaí,
    *tatataí, *bababaí, *gagagaí) ‘head’
    (8) ‘ísiihoái ~kísiihoái ~písiihoái ~píhiihoái ~kíhiihoái ~
    (alternations with /t/s or involving different values for
    [continuant] or [voicing] are unattested) ‘liquid fuel’
    Now here is a language, with only 7 vowels and 3 vowels, and open syllables, and no consonant cluster, in which “head” can be indifferently ‘apapaí, kapapaí, papapaí, ‘a’a’aí, kakakaí.
    In which “I, me” can be tí, kí, pí or ‘í. Pull the other one, all the more so that elsewhere Everett gives ‘í as meaning “she”.
    Such a language cannot be functional. I do not think that Everett made it up, no. The Pirahã did. Look at what he writes p.62:
    “The absence of formal fiction, myths, etc. does not mean that they do not or cannot joke or lie, both of which they particularly enjoy doing at my expense, always good-naturedly.”

  7. I think you might realize more about the Pirahã if you read more of Everett’s other essays. First of all, pronouns are not that common in the language,as I imagine you read in the incomprehensible Panther story, so the “I” variations are not entirely implausible. They tend to repeat the nouns or use proper names, rather than use pronouns.
    Don’t discount the importance of tone in the language when it comes to their free variation, either. I recently wrote an article discussing whistled languages (email me if you want a copy, although I still have some editing yet to go), and tonal languages tend to eliminate all articulatory gestures and simply use the tone itself to communicate when whistling. Pirahã has a whistled language. And surprisingly enough, this works, not just in Pirahã, but in many others. If a language can be simplified simply to tone, then some free variation in phonology, while implausible to this extent, is not impossible, either.
    Also, the Pirahã are not 100% monolingual. Everett perhaps makes too strong of a claim by saying “the fact that the Pirahã are monolingual after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv;”
    Most of the tribe is, but for instance, there were two (correct me if I’m wrong?) speakers raised in a Brazilian village before moving back to the tribe, who can speak both Portuguese and Pirahã. I believe these were the main correspondents Gordon used. And there is limited communication in Portuguese used while trading, and there was a local language used as a Lingua Franca (Nheengatu?) which at least some of the Pirahã knew, as well as the Mura.
    I think what he is more trying to stress is the sheer amount of contact that they have had, and yet they persist in being predominantly monolingual, a slightly unusual case, especially under what one might consider a more linguistically prestigious group. He does not say that every single speaker of Pirahã who ever existed has never learned a foreign language.
    The language does have many strange features, and I’d like to research some of them personally, if I can get the resources to do so. But I don’t think a famous phonetician like Ladefoged, who did personally visit the Pirahã, would be deceived very easily, nor would Gordon. And Everett himself, whom you seem to depict as at least somewhat of a simpleton, if he should be so gullible as to be deceived, simply is not stupid. I really don’t think there is some brilliant scheme behind this.
    Furthermore, the possibility of some giant hoax would be quite strange for a small remote tribe who lives a very sparse lifestyle.

  8. Well, I’m no expert, but in that Panther story he has the same morpheme “i” (no tone mark) meaning “sudden”, “intent”, “into”, “thus” and serving other functions. Other morphemes are equally as flexible. At one point, “move” (a in high tone) changes tone (so much for tone being distinctive, hey? — not that there are really enough combinations of tone and vowel for this to work as a whistled language anyway). There are at least three morphemes that mean “down”. For a language with such scarce resources, that’s profligate. They may not be able to count but they need to be masters of context!

  9. george essence says

    Roman numerals can be shown to be derived from music, from a system that may not be recognised unless you look for it. A whistled hummed or sung language may have been the norm thousands of years ago

Speak Your Mind