Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Crooked heads just don’t get it
April 9, 2010 - By: - In: Language - 5 comments

Deep in the Brazilian Amazon live the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN), a hunter-gatherer tribe of about 350 people who speak no other language than their own and keep to the old, pre-contact ways.

The remorseless spread of our Borg-like, cyber-frenetic civilization has assimilated or erased thousands of similar hunter-gatherer societies around the globe. There are an estimated 100 groups worldwide who have not yet been contacted. In the Amazon, the Pirahã stand alone, having resisted efforts by missionaries and government agencies to teach them farming, and maintaining complete autonomy since first discovered by Europeans in the mid-17th century.

They are protected by a language “unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, [making the Pirahã language] one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.” Check out this YouTube clip to hear a language of only eight consonants and three vowels (women use only seven consonants).

This is a language that, in more than 200 years of contact, has never been translated. The Pirahã speak only their own language and, until recently, no outsiders had ever learned Pirahã. They call all languages other than their own “Crooked-head” and consider any language other than their own to be ridiculously inferior, along with all the civilized nonsense that accompanies outside languages.  Just 30 years ago, a missionary set out to master their tongue, and continued to study their ways even after he had abandoned his missionary work.  Linguist professor Dan Everett was the first person to learn their language, and what he found was so astounding that he resisted publishing his work for years, since his findings seemed beyond belief.

“The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for ‘all,’ ‘each,’ ‘every,’ ‘most,’ or ‘few’ — terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition.”

“Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (e.g., ‘The man is walking down the street,’ and ‘The man is wearing a top hat’) into a single sentence (‘The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street’).”

Noam Chomsky and other linguistic theorists argue that these elements, especially recursion, are universal to human speech, and that you can’t have speech without it. Everett’s paper, Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã, was like a brick hurled through the window of the linguistic ivory tower.

Everett believes that Pirahã culture simply does not have a cognitive category for anything other than the here and now. Anything that is not about the immediate experience of the speaker is not worthy of consideration. Does that mean that the Pirahã don’t worry, since they don’t even think about the future? Seems like count and worry is all I do these days, and most of our worries are about stuff that never even happens.

Is the gulf so profound that it cannot be bridged? That it does not translate? So to our crooked heads, this language is notable for what it lacks, but what they gain in exchange is as incomprehensible to our own society as we are to them. Everett says, “I realized that this is the most intense culture that I could ever have hoped to experience. This is a culture that’s invisible to the naked eye, but that is incredibly powerful, the most powerful culture of the Amazon. Nobody has resisted change like this in the history of the Amazon, and maybe of the world.”

Read more: A Reporter at Large: The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?

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