Pirahã anecdotes: Do you know how to eat this?

I’ve written about Daniel Everett before, in a short post titled “Languages live like bread and love”, the purpose of which was to share a talk he gave on Pirahã and other endangered languages. Since then, I’ve read his book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, and found it an enthralling, affecting portrait of a remarkable language and culture.

Everett’s original motivation in living with the Pirahãs, which he did for many years, was religious: he was a missionary who wanted to translate the Bible into Pirahã and convert the people to Christianity. (That the last chapter is called “Converting the Missionary” will give you an idea of how that turned out.)

The book skilfully blends linguistic fieldwork, ethnography, and memoir. Here’s a snippet:

The first time the Pirahãs brought me something to eat, roasted fish, they asked me, “Gíxai soxóá xobáaxáaí. Kohoaipi?” (Do you already know how to eat this?) It is a great phrase, because if you really don’t want something, it gives you a way out without causing offense. All you have to say is “No, I don’t know how to eat this.”

A little later, the same construction appears in another context. Everett and five Pirahã men are returning to the village from the jungle, where they have been gathering roof materials. The path is long and narrow, with vegetation hanging low over and around it. Each man is carrying a heavy bundle of wood and thatch. Though the Pirahãs do not seem at all tired, Everett is struggling:

I realized that I was getting very tired and again perspiring profusely. I was wondering if I could make it back to the village with this load. My thoughts were interrupted by Kóxoí, who came up alongside of me, smiled, and then reached and took my bundle of palm wood onto his shoulder, adding it to his own load. “You don’t know how to carry this” was all he said.

*

Further on in the book, there’s a chapter on different channels of communication. Everett writes that because the Pirahã language makes extensive use of pitch, it has communication channels, or “channels of discourse”, that are lacking in most European languages.

Everett describes five such channels, each of which serves particular functions in Pirahã culture: whistle speech, hum speech, musical speech, yell speech, and normal speech (more on these here). Hum speech is what the Pirahãs do instead of whispering. It’s spoken at low volume to disguise what’s being said or who’s saying it, and it’s also used by mothers talking to their children, or when someone’s mouth is full.

Don’t Sleep… has an amusing anecdote of the first time Everett heard the Pirahãs use whistle speech. They had allowed him to go hunting with them, but decided to leave him alone by a tree because his noise (“clunking canteen and machete and congenital clumsiness”) was keeping the animals away.

As I tried to make the best of my solitary confinement, I heard the men whistling to one another. They were saying, “I’ll go over there; you go that way,” and other such hunting talk. But clearly they were communicating. It was fascinating because it sounded so different from anything I had heard before. The whistles carried long and clear in the jungle. I could immediately see the importance and usefulness of this channel, which I guessed would also be much less likely to scare away game than the lower frequencies of the men’s normal voices.

In a previous post, “Silbo Gomero and whistled languages”, I mentioned how whistle speech develops naturally in response to certain activities, such as shepherding and hunting, and environments, such as mountains and dense forest. If you’re curious, you’ll find links, sound files, and video there.

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11 Responses to Pirahã anecdotes: Do you know how to eat this?

  1. iamreddave says:

    It is a brilliant book. What are your feelings on Everett’s claims about the lack of recursion in the Pirahãs language?

  2. Stan says:

    Hi Dave. Though recursion is clearly very common in the planet’s languages, I see no reason to consider it a universal and necessary property of their grammars. I’m not a linguist, so I can’t speak about that with any authority, but I would give Everett the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Jonathon says:

    It’s interesting that the “do you know how?” constructions seems like a precursor to modality. Can descends from a verb meaning “to know how”, and may comes from one meaning “to be able”, so maybe in a few hundred years or so that Pirahã verb will be grammaticalized.

  4. Stan says:

    That’s a really interesting point, Jonathon. Can, of course, is related to the German kennen = to know. Pirahã language and culture are apparently very conservative, but by no means immune to change. I hope they survive — and not just so we can test your idea!

  5. Sean Jeating says:

    … Well, and German kennen is related to können = to be able to / to know how. This gives evidence of that the Pirahã are Germans, at least do have German roots.

    And off I am hasting …

  6. As ever I have absolutely nothing erudite to add to this thread Stan. That said it looks like an utterly fascinating read

  7. chris says:

    Vietnamese speakers also say “Do you know how to eat this?”, and many an expat has been relieved to say “I don’t know how to eat this” when faced with some dish that seemed too unusual.

    Your point about the German word “kennen” is a good one. Interestingly, “I can speak German” is translated as Ich kann Deutsch, using the modal verb “können”, to be able, yet drops the main verb “speak”, which we can’t do in English. You would think they’d use “kennen”, to know, and say “I know German”.

    The Pirahã language sounds fascinating. This book is going on the TBR list.

  8. Stan says:

    Sean: Heh. I must doubt your evidence, but I’ll agree to their ultimately having roots in common.

    Jams: That it is. There’s a long article about Everett and Pirahã here, if you want to read a bit more about it.

    Chris: A pity the idiom has no currency in English — it would be very useful! I wonder now how common it is in other languages. Thanks for sharing the observation about German; curious, how kennen covers the omitted sprechen.

  9. johnwcowan says:

    Kennen means to know a person in the sense of being familiar with them. Using it for “I know German” wouldn’t fit this semantics. So it’s können that implies sprechen in this context, but it’s not the only context: any kind of knowledge of a skill uses können.

    German also has a third verb for knowing, wissen (connected with the English noun wit) which has to do with knowing facts.

  10. Stan says:

    You’re right, John. Thanks for the clarification.

  11. [...] even very far-fetched, given that some languages have discourse channels that use whistling, humming, and other such modes of communication. Think of the subtle shades of exasperation, tedium, relief, [...]

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