Pirahã anecdotes: Do you know how to eat this?

September 14, 2011

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.


Languages live like bread and love

June 27, 2011

Daniel Everett is best known for his controversial research into the Pirahã language, which he popularised in a book called Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (steadily crawling up my to-read mountain.) The post title is a phrase adapted from Carlos Fuentes, which Everett used in a talk titled “Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge”:

[T]he general principle that makes languages alike or different is very simple. You talk like who you talk with, so if you talk with somebody all the time, you’ll talk like them, and if you don’t talk to them, eventually you won’t talk like them at all. So, languages live like bread and love, by being shared with others.

But languages die also, and languages die in one of two ways. First way is that the speakers actually die, and so if the speakers of a language die out the language is going to die . . . . Another reason languages die is because the speakers stop speaking – speakers lived but they shifted to another language. So, the languages that are gone, usually won’t come back.

The full lecture, delivered at the Long Now Foundation, is on Fora.tv, where you can download the video, audio, and not-very-accurate transcript. It’s a fascinating discussion of a remarkable language and it gives an idea of what we can lose when a language dies. [Edit: Here’s a short clip.]

For more on Everett’s work and the Pirahã language, I recommend this post at Language Log and Everett’s old page at Illinois State University.

[Edit: Unfortunately, the latter link has disappeared. See his new site, Dan Everett Books, and also Wikipedia’s page.]


Amondawa has no word for ‘time’?

May 21, 2011

“There is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of consciousness” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

A recurring idea in popular discussions of languages – usually exotic or minority ones – is that they have “no word for X”, where X could be hello, tomorrow, burger, ten, accountability, robin, and so on. Sometimes it’s sheer fantasy, sometimes the language simply has (or has had) no need for the word (robins in the Arctic?), and sometimes it has other ways of conveying the idea – such as a longer phrase, a different kind of metaphor, or another syntactic category.

The point is, it’s not as though there’s a nagging word-shaped gap there that makes it difficult for speakers of a language to communicate with one another, to make sufficient sense of their experiences, and to get through the day without falling apart. If there’s a need for a word, a word will arise.

Irish has no word for yes, but this linguistic lacuna does not stop Irish speakers from agreeing, accepting, assenting, and shouting things in bed. Other idioms and grammatical markers are used instead. The lack of a word for something doesn’t imply the lack of a concept for it, yet this illogical extrapolation is repeatedly made, perhaps for reasons of naïveté, sensationalism, or romanticism, e.g., the appeal of a culture with no word for lying, and other spins on the “noble savage” myth.

The no-word-for-X trope belongs to the more general faddish idea of a language or culture having N words for X, where N is, as Mark Liberman writes, “either zero or some number viewed as excessively large”; he goes on to discuss “the mind-clouding power of this rhetorical device”. It certainly seems to exert a strong and sometimes stupefying effect on people.

Many of us speak multiple languages, or we did once, or we know people who do, so occasional interlinguistic imprecision is a familiar notion. But when we encounter a language that supposedly has no word for Something Very Fundamental, some concept we assume to be universal, we are beguiled. What do they think like, we wonder, these exotic creatures who have no word for X. We want to be not so much a fly on the wall as a homunculus in the brain of someone very different from us – to test drive their mind for a while.

Yesterday the BBC announced that the Amondawa language “has no word for ‘time’”. The headline declares, rather boldly: “Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says”, but a more accurate description might be that it appears to lack an abstract term for time. The report follows a paper published in Language and Cognition titled “When Time is not Space: The social and linguistic construction of time intervals and temporal event relations in an Amazonian culture.” It’s available here [PDF].*

One of the authors, Chris Sinha, Professor of Psychology of Language at the University of Portsmouth, anticipates romantic misinterpretations when he stresses that the researchers are “really not saying these are a ‘people without time’ or ‘outside time’”. Time, after all, is inescapable; in the words of science fiction writer Ray Cummings, it’s “what keeps everything from happening at once”. Sinha’s comment echoes a point made in the paper’s discussion:

Read the rest of this entry »