The Pirahã People

July 3, 2008 Updated: November 27, 2009

Discovered by phonetic expert Professor Dan Everett of Manchester University in 1977, the Pirahã tribe of Brazil have perhaps the most unusual language among the nearly 6000 found on earth.

Free from concepts of time, color, or specific quantity, the mind of the Pirahã people appears to have been frozen in time—representing man in a simpler state.

Everett has put much effort into understanding the Pirahã language, and their culture, for the past 25 years.  As one of very few outside the tribe who’ve managed to tackle this mysterious language, Everett still makes up a significant percentage of Pirahã speakers; the population of this unique Amazon tribe consists of only a few hundred people.

The language of the Pirahãs is extreme: it is limited to 8 consonants for men, seven for women, and only three vowels. It does not contain concepts for counting or simple arithmetic—Everett notes that the Pirahã convey varying amounts through approximation.

Immediate Experience

Perhaps most intriguing, Everett found that the Pirahãs don’t use recursive phrases.  In other words, they don’t insert phrases within each other to combine different ideas to form a single sentence. Everett thoroughly tested about 20 Pirahãs, and found that none of them used a recursive clause.  According to Everett, the Pirahã only talk and think in terms of direct experience.  The kind of referencing that occurs in recursive phrases just isn’t a part of their thinking.

“[For the Pirahã] sentences…cannot be uttered acceptably in the absence of a particular pair of animals or instructions about a specific animal to a specific hunter. In other words, when such sentences are used, they are describing specific experiences, not generalizing across experiences. It is of course more difficult to say that something does not exist than to show that it does exist, but… in the context of my nearly three decades of regular research on Pirahã, it leads me to the conclusion that there is no strong evidence for the existence of quantifiers in Pirahã,” writes Everett in his 2005 paper for Current Anthropology, ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã.’

Despite Everett’s extensive study with this tribe, his claim for a lack of recursion in the language has many colleagues doubting his conclusions.  The qualities of the Pirahã language, as described by Everett, fly in the face of what many linguists consider a universal law of all languages.  According to the very influential linguist Noam Chomsky, recursion is something that has proved innate to all human thought throughout the world. Many insist that this infallible lingual law is supposed to apply to absolutely all languages (except, of course, that of the Pirahã).

But Everett had only come to this conclusion over time. While he had sensed a lack of recursion in the language early on, for years Everett had been a devoted Chomskyan linguist himself, and attempted to fit his findings within this framework.  Yet try as he might, he found that many aspects of the Pirahã language did not adhere to the Chomsky model.

“…some of the components of so-called core grammar are subject to cultural constraints, something that is predicted not to occur by the universal-grammar model. I argue that these apparently disjointed facts about the Pirahã language—gaps that are very surprising from just about any grammarian’s perspective—ultimately derive from a single cultural constraint in Pirahã, namely, the restriction of communication to the immediate experience of the interlocutors,” states Everett.

Rethinking Linguistics

According to Everett, the deceptively simple language of the Pirahãs is not an indicator of a mental failing— curiously, the tribe sees all other languages to be quite ridiculous. While their language may seem simple from our perspective, Everett says that they just use different means to convey concepts and emotions. He states that the Pirahã have a complex verbal morphology and system of accents that give the language its expressive color.

“The Pirahã people communicate almost as much by singing, whistling, and humming as they do using consonants and vowels,” he writes.

Another surprising fact is the absence of myth, ritual, symbolism or any other anthropological characteristic that relates the Pirahãs with other cultures throughout history. For the Pirahã, there does not exist any creator God, or moment of creation; nothing was ever created because it always existed. Their concept and experience of time reduces it to the absolute present. In fact, there are no members of the community interested in tracking the records of grandparents, much less older ancestors. To the Pirahã, once something is outside of direct experience, it ceases to exist. They don’t even seem to have any storytelling. 

With no color, no time, and no need for recursive sentence structure, could it be that for the Pirahã further detail would seem needlessly redundant?  Or do these concepts simply not fit into the Pirahã worldview? Everett says that the Pirahã see other languages as laughable, and show no desire to pursue “Portuguese (or American) knowledge but oppose its coming into their lives. They ask questions about outside cultures largely for the entertainment value of the answers.” Since various defenders of Chomsky’s doctrine do not share Everett’s opinions, could the Pirahã tribe simply represent a state of intellectual development that modern linguistic laws fail to understand?