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The Piraha Language and other Primitive Contemporaries - Linguistics in the Real World

Updated on July 10, 2016


I have always had an interest in languages so when I had a chance to take a Linguistics class in my senior year in high school, I was thrilled. This was an assignment I had to to for my midterm. I hope you find it interesting because I did.

Photograph by Martin Schoeller
Photograph by Martin Schoeller

Main Points

I never imagined there to be such a language as one consisting of just eight consonants and three vowels. My first thought was: does that even count as a language? An extensive article entitled The Interpreter by Jon Colapinto contained very interesting points considering such a language.

Dan Everett, the main linguist mentioned in this article, is a very gifted and proficient man in his area of study. He spent a lot of time with an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã , whose language is based on a mere eight consonants and three vowels. According to the article, the Pirahã language is one of the simplest sound systems known and is characterized by sing-, hum-, or whistle-conversations and melodic, staccato speech.

The way the language was described in the article immediately appealed to me because I have been a musician for years, and by the description of the language, it sounds very musical. After all, the terms melodic and staccato are musical terms. The description of the language reminds me of some African languages, which are known to have many melodic sounds including clicks and sharp intakes of breath as well.

Such languages, because they require so much different breathing patterns and specific pitches, are hard to learn if one is not exposed to it all his life.

Indigenous Peruvians  Google Images
Indigenous Peruvians Google Images

Indigenous Peruvian vs. Pirahã People

In this day and age, there are still indigenous peoples living in countries such as Peru. The indigenous people of Peru live up in the mountains and in the jungles of the country. Though they are living in a predominantly Spanish-speaking country, they cannot speak Spanish. They speak Quechua and that is the only language they wish to speak; they have no desire to learn Spanish.

The Indigenous Peruvian people prefer to live in their isolated societies, though primitive, and have no interest in technological, scientific, literary or medical advancements. This is the same instance with the Pirahã people. The Pirahã people, in fact, reject everything outside their world and call non-Pirahã speakers "crooked head", which I find quite funny actually.

According to Everett, the Pirahã people show no evidence of recursion, which is the linguistic operation of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type. For instance: "That girl is bouncing a ball" and "that girl is in the back yard" would be merged into "that girl in the backyard is bouncing a ball." Instead, the Pirahã people state thoughts in separate units and, again, accepts only what they observe as reality.

The Piraha (Google Images)
The Piraha (Google Images)

Knowing that the Pirahã people do not accept anything outside of their culture, it was brave of Everett and his wife, Keren to reside among the Pirahã and attempt to learn about their culture and their language. I can only imagine a language in which two words that sound the same are differentiated by an aspect as simple, and as easy to overlook, as pitch. To me, that is just... insane really, but very worthy of note all the same.

Everett and his wife left the Amazon, but I believe they had unfinished business to attend to, that they were meant to work with these people because... they returned.

Everett discovered that in the Pirahã language, they were lacking quantifiers. For them, "one" was a small amount, "two" was more than one, and then there was "many." However, Piraha is not the only language with this "one-two-many" numerical system. Other tribal languages such as Australian and African languages have the same numerical system but they are able to learn to count in another language, a skill the Pirahã peoples do not have.

Smarter Than They May Seem

Although the Pirahã are incapable of learning a numerical system in another language, I do not believe it is an intellectual problems. I believe the problem lies in the Pirahã people's lack of interest in expanding their knowledge and their culture. This inhibits anything outside of its boundary.

Another linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, argued that the words in our vocabulary determine how we think. I agree. The Pirahã people's words are limited because that is what they know. This does not mean they are dunce or anything, it is just that they know what they can observe in their isolated community. Therefore, what they can observe is what their vocabulary consists of.

Linguistics Applied

Everett's job reminds me of the movie "Nell" in which the linguist made a commitment to discovering the rules of the feral child (not in adulthood)'s unique language. The occupation of a linguist seems so tedious, yet when it is brought out of the classroom and into the world, it is beyond interesting.

I would love to do missionary work, just as Everett an Keren did. I would love to learn the language and culture of a seldom-known society or tribe. That sounds so enjoyable and rewarding. I wonder if Everett has discovered how to speak this complex language fluently or if it is even possible for him to become a fluent speaker.

It is good that people like Everett and Keren are still trying to find the rules of such languages, especially when such languages are in danger of becoming extinct. I must admit, I would like to read a follow-up article on this topic. I hope from my article that you now have an interest in doing some research (on this topic or similar topics) on your own. It is quite interesting.

Everett Describes His Experience


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    • kaltopsyd profile image

      kaltopsyd 7 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

      Hello DTR0005, you're right. The counting issue surely is fascinating. Good point about the pile of rocks and the way we English speakers describe colours. I guess all languages are limited in some way. :) Thank you for your insightful comment!

    • DTR0005 profile image

      Doug Robinson 7 years ago from Midwest

      The counting issue is fascinating. Some languages have very limited vocabulary to describe colors, etc. However, if a Pirahã native speaker sees a pile of rocks, he or she realizes that there are a pile of rocks. I think the same holds true if we, as English speakers, see a color for which there is no specific name - we still see the color exactly as anyone else would, we just lack a single term to describe it. But, we can say,"well it's a greenish-brown" or whatever. A Pirahã could say about the rocks, "well there are more than three and I can hold most of them in my hand, etc, etc."

    • kaltopsyd profile image

      kaltopsyd 7 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

      Hello Simone, thank you for stopping by the read my hub. I'm glad you found it fascinating! Thanks for commenting!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Fascinating!! Thanks so much for sharing your research on the subject. I've never had the chance to study linguistics, but feel like I got a lovely little sample of it through your hub!

    • kaltopsyd profile image

      kaltopsyd 7 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

      You're welcome, Tony. I found it interesting too. That's why I decided to share it.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for this. I have never heard before of the Piraha or of such a language. I think it most interesting. Thanks for helping me see something that is not directly in front of me!

      Love and peace


    • kaltopsyd profile image

      kaltopsyd 7 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

      It is sad, isn't it? Thanks, marvalousnj.

    • marvalousnj profile image

      marvalousnj 7 years ago from Central Jersey USA

      Interesting! It's sad that most times we only know what is directly in front of us, and already known! Thanks for the info.