Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Piraha: a people who do not need to count.

Anything, just anything, draws me in from my shed and to my desk where my computer is on and waiting, and there is this whole glorious world of words and ideas and...generally wondrous things.

Yesterday, for instance, I got distracted by a site on babies with beards (which I worked out later when describing it to Hodmandod Senior was probably a hoax - but very funny too);

Then today I read this via The Edge - a New Yorker article about a people in a remote part of Brazil who seem to be defying Chomsky's ideas on language development. They have no words for number  because they have no need for them. There is no 'tree' of subphrases or divisions either. They also have no art or abstract means of representation.  Everything is concrete and direct. If they can't see it, they ignore it, and they are not interested in anything that comes from outside their world. 

Their language sounds extremely complicated; not only is there a feminine version which has one fewer consonant than the one the men speak, but it depends very much on notes and rising scales and songs, and also body language. This makes recording devices fairly useless when linguists are attempting an analysis.

But enough self-indulgent procrastination - back to the shed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now wouldn't it be interesting to write from that point of view (not a bearded baby but one of the Piraha)? But impossible to do it properly because one would always be talking about things not there: so, really, impossible.

Wed Aug 06, 07:24:00 pm  
Blogger stu said...

It's intriguing, particularly since language seems to have such an impact on the way we interpret the world. Such a different language would surely produce a whole other way of approaching ideas.

Wed Aug 06, 09:27:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes Marly, it occurred to me as I was writing that how everything I was doing was not concrete, not at all relevant to a Piraha. The very act of writing anything would be alien.

And yes, Stu, everything would be different, and extremely difficult to successfully imagine.

Wed Aug 06, 09:41:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

I think of you in your shed, and smile. I know amazing words are being hammered out and manufactued in there.

Thu Aug 07, 08:35:00 am  
Blogger JL said...

This is a VERY misleading article. I went looking for more information on this, and am shocked by the crudity of the description.

Firstly, the Piraha DO have representational art of a votive/talisman type, as do all humans.

Their language is described as partially 'whistling', etc. but it is used for hunters to communicate in the jungle. I know what this is about, and their language is likely related to signals and signs typically used by small groups of men hunting.

The number thing? I have a tattoo of the Serbian word 'Drugi';
I love this word, as it is now used as delineating the number 'two'; but it does not mean 'two'. It means 'more than one', an archaic reminder of a time when such terminologies were irrelevant.

It sounds to me much of what is being seen with these Piraha people is extremely similar to a New World culture that produced 'Ishi':

"Whatever the relationship to other tribes, the Yana's one constant concern was the Yana. Having survived as a people for thousands of years, their culture, history, families, and future were paramount to all else. Whatever occurred in "other" worlds mattered little to them, as long as Yana country was preserved. They had no interest in discovering or exploring the mysteries beyond their borders. In Theodora Kroeber's words, they were "provincials" ... "

This is a small group whose lives are focussed on belief, taboo, religion, and custom.

The concept of time and tenses is unnecessary if your human existence is largely passive; if your world is dominated by otherworldly forces, which will always exist and are immortal, and you are part of that world, what need have you for timekeeping? All is one.

(The New World peoples are horribly misunderstood and little-studied; much of this is due to the apocalyptic impact of European arrival, which shattered the majority of New World cultures.)

The use of terms for 'relatives' is also unneeded: they are all Piraha.; what more can be said?


I thought about deleting this comment, but I'll leave it up.


Thu Aug 07, 03:15:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And kay - thank you...but rather tragically I'm back inside yet again...:-)

Thu Aug 07, 03:42:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I'm very glad you left this comment up, JL - I think what you have to say is very interesting, and it's made me think again about that article.

I agree that the New World Tribes are little studied. I was trying to find out about what used to be the dominant tribe in southern South America - the Tehuleches - a couple of years ago and was astonished at how little I could find.

I think you're right about view-point. My attempt to emulate how these tribes used to think was to study shamanism, and from what I remember your comment ' if your world is dominated by otherworldly forces, which will always exist and are immortal, and you are part of that world, what need have you for timekeeping? All is one.' is pretty much spot-on.

Thu Aug 07, 03:44:00 pm  

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