Pirahã and its Implications for Grammar
When Linguist Dan Everett was sent to the Amazon Jungle to live with the Pirahã people, his mission was to learn their language and convert them to Christianity. What he left with, many years later, were theories about grammar and language he never thought he would discover. His views about language changed drastically, from agreeing with former colleague at Illinois State University, Noam Chomsky, to rejecting those views wholeheartedly. He spent years formulating new hypotheses based on his study of the Pirahã people, and is a big proponent of language being culture-based, that is to say that how people speak has a lot to do with their culture. ...view middle of the document...
Everett was not the first person who was sent to the jungle to learn from these people; he got a lot of helpful tips and research from the man who was there before him, Steve Sheldon.
When he first arrived in the village of the Pirahã people, whose huts were set along the Maici River, he was greeted by the friendly, smiling faces of the indigenous tribe. The first thing he did was introduce himself to the first person he saw by pointing to himself and saying Daniel. The man then pointed to himself and said what Everett assumed was his name. Everett continued to do this with other things in the surrounding area like stick and rodent. This, he decided, was how he was going to begin to learn this language. That first day he learned something about the Pirahã language that would make it very difficult to learn: “There were only eleven or so Phonemes in Pirahã, but that the basic organization of their sentences was SOV (subject, object, verb)” (Everett 8). The other thing that was going to make it incredibly difficult for him to learn the language was that he and Pirahã people didn’t share any sort of common language. While he spoke Portuguese, which the Pirahã people knew a few words of, they didn’t have any way to communicate or teach him how to speak their language. While this first day would prove to be very informative for him, Everett knew there was a lot to come.
There were so many things about this language that were working against Everett that it’s hard to believe he was ever able to learn it. Another problem he ran into, he says in his interview with Ryan, was that, like Mandarin Chinese, Pirahã was spoken with a lot of importance put on pitch. For Example, the words for friend and enemy are the exact same, only enemy is spoken with a higher pitch on one phoneme.
This example will illustrate the importance of pitch in the Pirahã language:
xaoóí = “skin”
xaoói = “foreigner”
xáoói = “ear”
xaóoí = “Brazil nut shell”
As you can see these words are all spelled with the same letters in the Pirahã language. The only difference is where the pitch is in each word. The accent symbol shows where the high pitch is in each word.
“The language is hard to learn too because there are only three vowels (a, i, o) and eight consonants (p, t, h, s, b, g, the glottal stop x, and k)” (Everett 21). Some people might think that only having 11 phonemes would make a language easier to learn, but you have to remember that with only 11 phonemes, that means to distinguish between two words, these words must be longer. Something I thought was interesting about this is that the glottal stop x is reserved for males and is replaced with an h when females are speaking. While the Pirahãs spend a lot of time telling stories, they lacked social interaction words: “Pirahã sentences are either requests for information, assertions of new information, or commands, by and large” (Everett 11). They didn’t really use words like the English words...