Linguistics and Cultural Roots of Innumeracy

Via Arts Daily comes the interesting story Pirahas tribe in Brazil who’s culture and language is brewing a storm among academic linguists and cognitive psychologists;

“Since 1977, the British ethnologist at the University of Manchester spent a total of seven years living with the Pirahãs -- and he's committed his career to researching their puzzling language.

The reaction came exactly as the researcher had expected. The small hunting and gathering tribe, with a population of only 310 to 350, has become the center of a raging debate between linguists, anthropologists and cognitive researchers. Even Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Steven Pinker of Harvard University, two of the most influential theorists on the subject, are still arguing over what it means for the study of human language that the Pirahãs don't use subordinate clauses….

Indeed, the debate over the people of the Maici River goes straight to the core of the riddle of how homo sapiens managed to develop vocal communication. Although bees dance, birds sing and humpback whales even sing with syntax, human language is unique. If for no other reason than for the fact that it enables humans to piece together never before constructed thoughts with ceaseless creativity -- think of Shakespeare and his plays or Einstein and his theory of relativity…

Linguistics generally focuses on what idioms across the world have in common. But the Pirahã language -- and this is what makes it so significant -- departs from what were long thought to be essential features of all languages.
The language is incredibly spare. The Pirahã use only three pronouns. They hardly use any words associated with time and past tense verb conjugations don't exist. Apparently colors aren't very important to the Pirahãs, either -- they don't describe any of them in their language. But of all the curiosities, the one that bugs linguists the most is that Pirahã is likely the only language in the world that doesn'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."

Equally perplexing: In their everyday lives, the Pirahãs appear to have no need for numbers. During the time he spent with them, Everett never once heard words like "all," "every," and "more" from the Pirahãs. There is one word, "hói," which does come close to the numeral 1. But it can also mean "small" or describe a relatively small amount -- like two small fish as opposed to one big fish, for example. And they don't even appear to count without language, on their fingers for example, in order to determine how many pieces of meat they have to grill for the villagers, how many days of meat they have left from the anteaters they've hunted or how much they demand from Brazilian traders for their six baskets of Brazil nuts.

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."

His findings have brought new life to a controversial theory by linguist Benjamin Whorf, who died in 1914. 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.“

Some Thoughts and Links;

At Language Log there is an interesting discussion of the issue with author pointing out may be Gordon is pushing it a little too much with his Whorfian spin. Dan Everett’s email response is also illuminating.

I listened to this song of the the Piraha people (the people do not call themselves Pirahã, which is not even a word of their language), it didn’t sound that strange to me. I really don’t how much you could generalize from the culture and language of a very small tribe in the Amazon. What was more surprising to me was that they had no concept of art or drawing in their culture- look at the drawing of the cat above.

Language from Yanyuwa Country; a tribe of Australian aboriginal people. Hear is podcast discussing their culture. Diwurruwurru - The Message Stick; the Piraha people should have a website like this

Maldives: The Dhivehi language and Thana Script, A Dhivehi-English Dictonary, Historical and Linguistic Survey of Dhivehi

Exploring the Mathematical Brain / The Mathematic Brain- a brief introductory podcast /A Cerebral Basis For Number Sense /

Economics of Witch Hunting; an earlier post on a related field.


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on May 17, 2006 11:37 PM.

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