Brazil’s Challenge to Modern Linguistics

Area inhabited by the Piraha Tribe
Area inhabited by the Piraha Tribe

Intro

Pirahã, a hunter-gatherer tribe numbering around 700 as of 2013 and 2018, lives along the Maici River in the Amazon Forest of North-western Brazil. Pirahã, or Múra- Pirahã, is the indigenous language of the isolated Pirahã people. They are unique among Amazonian people remaining monolingual. Pirahã people have resolutely avoided any cultural dilution, implicitly learning Portuguese.

Pirahã language is considered the only remaining dialect of the Múra- Pirahã language group. The Pirahã descend from a larger indigenous group called the Mura but split from the main tribe long before the Mura were first contacted in 1714.

All other languages died in the last few centuries as many Múra- Pirahã groups shifted to Portuguese. It is unknown how old exactly the Pirahã Language is or how it originated, as this nation has no books, history, or heritage from their ancestors, but it is estimated to be the last remnants of a few thousand-year-old linguistic groups, the Múra- Pirahã.

Pirahã is a unique language consisting of eight consonants and three vowels, with no description of numbers and no tenses to describe the past. But because of the wide variety of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths of Pirahã, its speakers can completely exclude vowels and consonants from their speech and instead sing, hum, or whistle.

When anthropologists who have interacted with the Pirahã people were asked to rate them on how much time they spent smiling and laughing compared to other cultures, the carefree Pirahã consistently came out on top.   

Pirahã is a confounding language to non-native speakers, and it is almost impossible for them to master it. Daniel Everett is among one the few non-native speakers in the world. He spent many years living with the Pirahã, isolated in the depths of the Amazon forest. He studied the cultural aspects and the surprising features of the Pirahã language of Brazil in detail.

Daniel Everett's 1977 Documentary on the Piraha Tribe of the Amazonia
Daniel Everett’s 1977 Documentary on the Piraha Tribe of the Amazonia

Linguistic Features of the Pirahã Language

Different linguists have different ideas about phonological systems in the Pirahã language that have little research and great allophonic diversity.

Some linguists say that the Pirahã language possesses various peculiar linguistic traits. However, some linguists have argued that the same characteristics are also present in other languages. More than twenty research publications by Everett are the most important sources of information about Pirahã’s grammar.

No Numbers, Numerals, or Counting

There are no grammatical numbers in Pirahã. Pirahã language lacks number contrasts on nouns, verbs, pronouns or modifiers for numbers.

Unlike other languages, Pirahã lacks the grammatical category of numbers. Pirahã lacks numeracy, a sporadic linguistic feature. Pirahã consists of no words at all for numeracy. There are only three notions of quantity in v; hói (small size or amount), hoí (somewhat larger size or amount), and baágiso (means “cause to come together” or “a bunch”). 

Pirahã contains no ordinal numbers. Like other languages, some of the functions of ordinals are expressed through body parts. Pirahã language lacks quantifier terms (like all, each, every, few, etc.). 

The absence of number distinction in Pirahã makes any nominal ambiguous between singular, plural, and generic interpretations.

The absence of counting is one unexpected absence in the Pirahã language and culture. 

People from the Piraha Tribe are said to be the happiest people in the world
People from the Piraha Tribe are said to be the happiest people in the world

No Colour Terms

Pirahã language lacks colour terms. This doesn’t mean that they are colourblind. They simply do not divide the colour spectrum into more subdued or specific hues like teal, brown, or taupe. 

There is no use of colour quantification (like “I like black” or “I like black things”).

Pirahã refers to plants by their species names instead of the generic name, and they don’t talk about colour except by describing specific objects in their own experience. 

The absence of morphologically simple colour terms and quantification using colour demonstrates that Pirahã’s colour description is very different compared to other languages. 

No Small Talk

Unlike other languages, the Pirahã language also lacks phatic communication or small talk.

 Phatic communication includes phrases like “my delight,” “Hello,” and “how are you today?”. These phrases don’t provide us with any new knowledge, but they pragmatically uphold societal norms.

The Pirahã does not prefer this manner of speaking. They typically don’t say “thank you,” preferring to return the favour later.

Additionally, the Pirahã people talk much more bluntly. Direct inquiries include things like, “Where is the firewood?” Similarly, definite statements include “It’s down by the river,” etc. Moreover, instructions are limited to “Go collect the wood, and bring it here.”

Members of Piraha Tribe
Members of Piraha Tribe

Kinship Terms

The Pirahã have the simplest known kinship structure of any human culture. Mother and father are both referred to by the same word, bai xi, and they don’t seem to keep track of ties beyond that of biological siblings.

Lack of Embedding or Recourse

One of the most unusual features of Pirahã is the lack of clear evidence of embedding in its morphological structure.  

Embedding increases the information flow above the threshold of the principle of immediate information encoding. Although Pirahã possesses the communicative tools necessary to express clauses embedded in other languages, there needs to be solid proof that Pirahã includes embedding. 

Because linguistic research among the Pirahã is monolingual, there is no way to get translations of any precisions for colour terms, verb suffixes, and numbers.

Pirahã is subject to cultural restraint because of the lack of embedding that limits the grammar’s conformity.

Children of the Piraha Tribe
Children of the Piraha Tribe

Is Pirahã an Endangered Language?

The Pirahã people believed that they were not Brazilians. Instead, they are Pirahã. Without their language and culture, they would fail to Pirahã.

This beautiful language and culture have much to teach us about linguistic theory, culture, human nature, toughness, personal fortitude, and many more.

 And Pirahã is only one example of many other endangered languages and civilizations found in the Amazon and elsewhere. Pirahã language is endangered because the Pirahã people are themselves endangered by the presence of settlers, Western diseases, alcohol, and the increasingly developing world they live in. 

 It is more crucial than ever that field researchers should record such endangered languages and that more people and foundations should follow the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Document Project by contributing to the study’s funding.

4 thoughts on “Pirahã Language: Brazil’s Challenge to Modern Linguistics

  1. We can add to it and, for instance, form noun phrases that contain multiple noun phrases themselves. Some linguists, including one who did some early fieldwork on the Pirahã, have argued that their language lacks recursion, making it anomalous among the world’s tongues

  2. This is quality content. I am interested in behaviorology and psychology but I want to be a linguist and understand our minds and cognitive functions better in hopes that I can devise a better way for people to acquire knowledge. A lot of my knowledge of psychology actually coincide with that of linguistics. I also learned graphology and I think with combination to linguistics it can contribute to research on learning disabilities in children

    1. The relentless pace of modern life is making the debate more urgent, however- The Brazilian government has recently built a school in the region, and begun broadcasting television and radio over the Piraha’s reservation. Time will tell what effect this intrusion of modern life has on the Piraha’s speech and culture.

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