Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Brazil's Pirahas

"In the end, not a single one could count to ten."

One of the hottest debate in Linguistics(a major field in Anthropology) today is the research involving the Pirahas people of Brazil. Maybe I can relay the disputes. First of all these people don't use subordinate clauses.

Instead of saying, "When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you," the Pirahãs say, "I finish eating, I speak with you." Even famed linguist Noam Chomsky has had trouble believing that this is the only language without S.C.

Here is a quote from a recent article:"The debate amongst linguists about the absence of all numbers in the Pirahã language broke out after Peter Gordon, a psycholinguist at New York's Columbia University, visited the Pirahãs and tested their mathematical abilities. For example, they were asked to repeat patterns created with between one and 10 small batteries. Or they were to remember whether Gordon had placed three or eight nuts in a can.

The results, published in Science magazine, were astonishing. The Pirahãs simply don't get the concept of numbers. His study, Gordon says, shows that "a people without terms for numbers doesn't develop the ability to determine exact numbers."

Psycholinguist Peter Gorden: Are we only capable of creating thoughts for which words exist?
His findings have brought new life to a controversial theory by linguist Benjamin Whorf, who died in 1941. Under Whorf's theory, people are only capable of constructing thoughts for which they possess actual words. In other words: Because they have no words for numbers, they can't even begin to understand the concept of numbers and arithmetic."

This interests me since i've put quite a bit of time exploring the theories of the so-called "cultural turn" which basically suggests that words and symbols can't give access to direct experience, but merely highlight the complexity of meaning. Since these people have little symbolism to express concrete numerical value they have a hard time conceptualizing them.

It seems that this culture has a sort of "live for the now" personality that has had a deep effect on their language. Very little abstract thought communicated or the use of numbers or ideas of the past leads one to live in the moment.

These people aren't isolated from other natives and mix regularly. They are as modern and intelligent as any other modern population.


  1. Fascinating...Then there appears to be no history to make 'the man', and no 'man' to make the history.

    So if extreme isolation is not the cause, then how influential could the various peoples and cultures near by be?

    With probably no literature, and no significant history, no math or sciences, no written philosophy, no independent thinkers, how is this culture to move forward?

    This is a Static Culture, a culture that has no visible dynamics.

    The Experts are going to have their collective hands full on this one! To arrive at what causes this in the Brazil Pirahas, you're going to have to look broad on this one: Geology, Geography, Topography, Climatology, Anthropology, History, Literature, Sociology, Psychology, etc...

    I doubt answers are coming soon, but it would be fascinating. The History of these peoples would be interesting to me.

  2. Fascinating indeed! These people are the epitomy of carpe diem, whether its beneficial for them or not is hard to say but it appears they have lived for thousands of years without regard for the past or for numbers.

    They are just as modern physiologically as you or I. They just choose not to conceptualize the abstract apparently.