Just the Facts, Ma’am

March 24th, 2006 by john

The current issue of New Scientist (18 March) has a fascinating piece about an Amazonian people known as the Pirahã. Anthropologists who have lived among them report that the Pirahã have no creation myth, no sense of time as we know it, no extended oral history, and no tradition of storytelling. Needless to say, it’s unlikely there will ever be a Pirahã edition of SMITH.

In theory, Pirahã is a simple language. With only seven consonants and three vowels, the Pirahã women’s dialect has the smallest number of speech sounds, or “phonemic inventory”, of any language. The men, who speak a slightly different dialect, use an eighth consonant, making their inventory the next smallest–tied with Hawaiian and Rotokas, which is spoken in Papua New Guinea. Each sentence refers to just one event, and the language has the simplest known set of pronouns, with no plurals, not even a distinction between “I” and “we”.

Pirahã lacks words for abstract concepts such as numbers and colours, so that speakers cannot talk about things that are beyond their immediate experience. The language lacks quantification terms such as “all’, “each”, “every”, “most” and “some”. And there is no perfect tense–no way of saying “I have eaten”, for example.

Despite the seeming simplicity of Pirahã, it is fiendishly difficult to learn. The patterns of stress and intonation are highly complex, allowing speakers to express the same syllable in five different ways. Many words have a variety of meanings depending on the inflection–which can be extremely difficult for an outsider to tune in to. Linguist Dan Everett, who has spent years learning the language, also describes how the Pirahã people convert everyday speech into song, using a characteristic exaggeration of the tones in their language, together with a transformation of some of the consonant sounds into others. “The Pirahã people communicate almost as much by singing, whistling, and humming as they do using consonants and vowels,” he notes.

New Scientist, which always has great stuff like this, is worth hunting for on the newsstand. And if you do check out the site, don’t miss the podcasts.

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