Crooked heads just don’t get it

by Translation Guy on April 9, 2010

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?


  1. Chris Carter says:

    I wrote a short paper a few years ago about Pirahã and Dan Everett. I was fascinated by the initial teaser facts I had heard about this language so I investigated further. Everett is one of only a very few people that have done any research on this language, and his claims are very striking linguistically. While excited by these conclusions, I was sad to discover that the subsequent researchers of Pirahã believe many of his wildest claims (such as lack of a number words, or a lack of words for colors, or doesn’t use a standardized system of pronouns) to be misleading or that his empirical methodologies left the door wide open for uncertain or corrupted results. Everett even liked to repeatedly tell of how he won the confidence of the tribe by overhearing them plot he and his family’s murder right in front of him, but he understood them and hid all of their weapons before the intended time the assasinations were to occur. (Didn’t Everett say the Pirahã live only in the moment? Yet they planned and discussed a future murder in a murder meeting at the front door of his tent.) It is still a fascinating language and people. But we should take with a grain of salt the word of just one man who has staked his career, reputation, and fame on what he wants to tell you.

    • Ken says:

      Say it ain’t so, Chris…. I did a quick read of some of the critiques of Everett’s work, but its hard to gauge from so far away. But your point about the word of one man is right on. Everett maintains that even his ex, the only other fluent non-native speaker of the language, doesn’t get it.

      Despite my anti-Rousseau skepticism, there is something just so appealing about the State of Nature. So, in my minds eye, I sit under the sun-dappled canopy of an endless Amazonian forest, glance at the fogged glass of my sweat-spoiled time-piece, lean back into a cradle of jungle vines and exhale. I want so badly to believe too.

  2. Dan Everett says:


    There is no truth to these rumors. There have been criticisms, but you neglected to mention several sources of support. The number claim, to take just one example, was investigated independently by a team of researchers from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences who confirmed the absence of numbers and published their results in the journal Cognition, an article that was selected by Discover magazine as one of the top 100 science articles of 2008.

    There have been many other researchers visit the Piraha over the years, in fact more than 25 from universities all around the world, to test a variety of hypotheses that I and others have advanced. No one has found any inconsistencies and the data go in the direction that I have predicted. On recursion, numbers, quantifiers, color words, etc.

    I may be wrong, of course. But these are not wild untestable claims based on poor methods. These are serious claims, conclusions, and hypotheses that can be tested like any others with rigorous scientific method. The Amazon is not easy to reach, of course, and one would need to invest some time learning Piraha if they wanted to work without my help (which I recommend because I am busy enough as it is), but all this stuff is testable.

    And so far, it seems right. There is a huge amount of literature on this. And a new documentary, The Grammar of Happiness, to appear this summer, about the Pirahas and my work. Also, there is my book, Don’t sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle (Vintage Books in the US), which discusses all of this in much more detail, for a non-linguistic audience.


    Dan Everett

    • Ken says:

      Dan, awesome you could join us to set the record straight. Us armchair critics can only dip our distracted little pinkies in the work you’ve made your life. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  3. Javi says:

    For a very good review and criticism of Everett”s work from a Linguistic point of view see: Enrique Bernárdez’s “El lenguaje como cultura”, 2008

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