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The Pirahã people (pronounced [piɾaˈhã]) are an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Amazon natives, a subgroup of the Mura, who mainly live on the banks of the Maici River in Brazil's Amazonas state, in the territory on Humaitá and Manicoré municipality. (See GPS: S 7°21.642′ W 62°16.313) As of 2010[update], they number 420 individuals. The Pirahã people do not call themselves Pirahã but instead the Hi'aiti'ihi, roughly translated as "the straight ones".
The Pirahã are supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to ensure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game.
The Pirahã speak the Pirahã language. They call any other language “Crooked head.” Members of the Pirahã can whistle their language, which is how the tribe's men communicate when hunting in the jungle.
As far as the Pirahã have related to researchers, their culture is concerned solely with matters that fall within direct personal experience, and thus there is no history beyond living memory. Pirahãs have a simple kinship system that includes baíxi (parent, grandparent, or elder), xahaigí (sibling, male or female), hoagí or hoísai (son), kai (daughter), and piihí (stepchild, favorite child, child with at least one deceased parent, and more).
Daniel Everett states that one of the strongest Pirahã values is no coercion; you simply don't tell other people what to do. There appears to be no social hierarchy; the Pirahã have no formal leaders. Their social system can thus be labeled as primitive communism, in common with many other hunter-gatherer bands in the world, although rare in the Amazon because of a history of agriculture before Western contact (see history of the Amazon).
Their culture is remarkably economical. For example, they use canoes every day for fishing and for crossing the river that they live beside. However, when their canoes wear out, they simply use pieces of bark as temporary canoes. Everett brought in a master builder who taught and supervised the Pirahã in making a canoe, so that they could make their own. But when they needed another canoe, they said that "Pirahã do not make canoes" and told Everett he should buy them a canoe. The Piraha rely on neighboring tribes' canoe work, and use those canoes for themselves.
Pirahã build simple huts where they keep a few pots, pans, knives, and machetes. They make only scraping implements (for making arrowheads), loosely woven palm-leaf bags, bows, and arrows. They take naps of 15 minutes to, at the most, two hours throughout the day and night, and rarely sleep through the night.
They often go hungry, not for want of food, but from a desire to be tigisái (hard). They do not store food in any quantity, but generally eat it when they get it. Pirahã have ignored lessons in preserving meats by salting or smoking. They cultivate manioc plants that grow from spit-out seeds and make only a few days' worth of manioc flour at a time. They trade Brazil nuts and sex for consumables or tools, e.g. machetes, gunpowder, powdered milk, sugar, whiskey. Chastity is not a cultural value. They trade Brazil nuts, wood, and sorva (rubbery sap used in chewing gum) for soda-can pull-tabs, which are used for necklaces. Men wear T-shirts and shorts that they get from traders; women sew their own plain cotton dresses.
Their decoration is mostly necklaces, used primarily to ward off spirits. The concept of drawing is alien to them and when asked to draw a person, animal, tree, or river, the result is simple lines. However, on seeing a novelty such as an airplane, a child may make a model of it, which may be soon discarded.
According to Everett, the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god, and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence based on personal experience for every claim made. However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people. Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.
Adoption of modern culture
A 2012 documentary called "The Grammar of Happiness" which aired on the Smithsonian Channel, reported that a school had been opened for the Pirahã community where they learn Portuguese and mathematics. As a consequence, observations involving concepts like the notion of quantity (which has a singular treatment in Pirahã language), became impossible, because of the influence of the new knowledge on the results. According to FUNAI the school is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education of Brazil. In addition to a formal school being introduced to the culture, the documentary also reported that the Brazilian government installed a modern medical clinic, electricity and television in the remote area.
After working with the language for thirty years, Everett states that it has no relative clauses or grammatical recursion. Everett points out that there is recursion of ideas: that in a story, there may be subordinate ideas inside other ideas. He also pointed out that different experts have different definitions of recursion. If the language lacks grammatical recursion, then it is a counterexample to the theory proposed by Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch (2002) that recursion is a feature which all human languages must have.
Pirahã is perhaps second only to Rotokas in New Guinea for the distinction of having the fewest phonemes of any of the world's languages. Women sometimes pronounce s as h, reducing the inventory still further.
Their language is a unique living language. (It's related to Mura, which is no longer spoken.) John Colapinto explains, "Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations." Peter Gordon writes that the language has a very complex verb structure: "To the verb stem are appended up to 15 potential slots for morphological markers that encode aspectual notions such as whether events were witnessed, whether the speaker is certain of its occurrence, whether it is desired, whether it was proximal or distal, and so on. None of the markers encode features such as person, number, tense or gender."
Curiously, although not unprecedentedly, the language has no cardinal or ordinal numbers. Some researchers, such as Prof. Peter Gordon of Columbia University, claim that the Pirahã are incapable of learning numeracy. His colleague, Prof. Daniel L. Everett, on the other hand, argues that the Pirahã are cognitively capable of counting; they simply choose not to do so. They believe that their culture is complete and does not need anything from outside cultures. Everett says, "The crucial thing is that the Pirahã have not borrowed any numbers—and they want to learn to count. They asked me to give them classes in Brazilian numbers, so for eight months I spent an hour every night trying to teach them how to count. And it never got anywhere, except for a few of the children. Some of the children learned to do reasonably well, but as soon as anybody started to perform well, they were sent away from the classes. It was just a fun time to eat popcorn and watch me write things on the board."
The language does not have words for precise numbers, but rather concepts for a small amount and a larger amount.
The language may have no unique words for colors. There are no unanalyzable root words for color; the recorded color words are all compounds like mii sai or bii sai, "blood-like", which is not that uncommon.
It is suspected that the language's entire pronoun set, which is the simplest of any known language, was recently borrowed from one of the Tupí–Guaraní languages, and that before that the language may have had no pronouns whatsoever. Many linguists, however, find this claim questionable due to lack of evidence. However, if there had been pronouns at an earlier stage of Pirahã, this would not affect Everett's claim of the significance of the system's simplicity today. There are few Tupi–Guaraní loanwords in areas of the lexicon more susceptible to borrowing (such as nouns referring to cultural items, for instance). There are some loanwords for different types of flora and fauna (which may indicate that the Pirahã came from elsewhere). That all Pirahã pronouns were borrowed is a hypothesis and would be unusual, but there are precedents.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (26 August 2004). "The Straight Ones: Dan Everett on the Pirahã". Language Log. Retrieved 2007-06-22.
- Environmental Graffiti
- Colapinto, John (16 April 2007). "The Interpreter—Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2009-02-25.
- Everett 2008, pp. 86-87
- Recursion and Human Thought: Why the Pirahã Don't Have Numbers
- Everett 2008 pp. xvii, 13, 70, 79
- Everett 2008, p. 76
- Everett 2008, p. 74
- Gordon, Peter. Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia, Supporting Online Materials, p. 5. Science, 2004.
- John Colapinto (2007), The Interpreter. New Yorker, 2007-04-16
- Everett, Daniel. "Endangered Languages and Lost Knowledge", The Long Now Foundation, San Francisco, March 20, 2009. For the relevant info, see transcript of the talk or play chapter 8 of the video at 33:40.
- Everett 2008, pp. 112, 134-142
- Everett 2008, pp. xvi-xvii
- The Grammar of Happiness (television documentary). Smithsonian Channel. 2012.
- Everett 2008 pp. 178-179. Everett states that Pirahã, Rotokas, and Hawaiian each have eleven phonemes. However, the Hawaiian phonology has either 13 or 33 phonemes and it's not known what source or method Everett used when counting the Hawaiian phonemes.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2004-08-26). "Language Log: The Straight Ones: Dan Everett on the Pirahã". Itre.cis.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2010-07-02.
- Gordon, Peter (2004). "Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia". Science 306 (5695): 496–9. doi:10.1126/science.1094492. PMID 15319490.
- Everett, Daniel (2005). "Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: Another look at the design features of human language" (PDF). Current Anthropology 46 (4): 621–46. doi:10.1086/431525.
- Nevins, Andrew; David Pesetsky & Cilene Rodrigues (2009). "Pirahã exceptionality: A Reassessment". Language 85 (2): 355–404. doi:10.1353/lan.0.0107. [dead link]
- Everett, Daniel (2009). "Pirahã Culture and Grammar: a Response to some criticisms". Language 85 (2): 405–442. doi:10.1353/lan.0.0104.[broken citation]
- Nevins, Andrew; David Pesetsky & Cilene Rodrigues (2009). "Evidence and Argumentation: a Reply to Everett (2009)". Language 85 (3): 671–681. doi:10.1353/lan.0.0140. [broken citation]
- Nevins, Andrew Ira, David Pesetsky, Cilene Rodrigues, "Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment" (2007 version of 2009 article)
- Everett, Daniel "Cultural Constraints on Grammar in PIRAHÃ: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007)" (reply to 2007 version of Nevins et al. article)
- Hauser, M.; Chomsky, N. & Fitch, W. T. (2002). "The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?". Science 298 (5598): 1569–79. doi:10.1126/science.298.5598.1569. PMID 12446899.
- Rafaela von Bredow (May 3, 2006). "Brazil's Pirahã Tribe: Living without Numbers or Time". Spiegel Online.[dead link]
- Article appearing in "The Globe and Mail"[dead link]
- Guardian article: What happens when you can't count past four?
- Language may shape human thought New Scientist article (19 August 2004)
- A people lost for words[dead link] New Scientist article (18 March 2006)
- Life without numbers
- The Independent article (7 May 2006)
- The Interpreter in the New Yorker (16 April 2007); a lengthy article about the Pirahã and Daniel Everett's work with them
- Slideshow accompanying the article (16 April 2007)]
- The Piraha challenge: an Amazonian tribe takes grammar to a strange place Science News, December 10, 2005[dead link]
- Recursion and Human Thought: Why the Piraha don't have numbers
- Documenting Endangered Languages: The View from the Brazilian Amazon PDF print of Everett (2006).[dead link]
- Google map of the location where Daniel Everett lived with the Pirahã
- A Conversation with Augusto and Yapohen Pirahã A conversation with Jose Augusto and Yapohen Pirahã, who represent the leadership of the Pirahã tribe. (Portuguese with English subtitles.)