Rambling #2

This nearly had the title “A Tale of Two Languages“. A couple weeks ago I was watching a rerun on the Smithsonian channel about the Pirahã of Brazil and Daniel Everett. It immediately reminded me of the cultures of El Beni in Bolivia, and particularly, the Sirionó. The similarities and differences are striking.

There’s something you may not know about me. At one time I worked with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (now known as SIL International) and its sister organization, the Wycliffe Bible Translators (now called the Wycliffe Global Alliance), both founded by William Townsend. For those unfamiliar with Bible history, Wycliffe was the first to translate the Bible (Vulgate version) into Middle English in 1382, and he was a constant thorn in the side of the Holy See. The purpose of the organizations is to study and document lesser-known languages and to translate the Bible (especially the New Testament and Gospels) into the local languages for the edification and enlightenment of the natives. Yes, I was one of them, but my excuse was to aid in studying and recording languages before they became extinct and because it was something I truly enjoyed.

There are several stories about translations that serve as cautionary tales to new missionaries. The most common is the helpful native who provides the vocabulary for your Biblical translation. If he is giggling or smirking, you can almost be sure that the word provided is not quite the word you intended to use. One of my favorite stories was about a missionary who didn’t fully understand the culture of the people he was working with. He was recounting the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (from John 4). Every time he said something about the woman’s replies to Jesus, his audience was obviously trying to restrain their laughter. Only later did he find out that only a slut with no moral scruples would talk to a strange man like that.

In 1942, the year Townsend founded the Wycliffe Bible Translators, one of his students, Kenneth Pike took over as president of SIL and retained that position until 1979 when he became president emeritus, which lasted until he died in 2000. He met with the missionaries every summer at the University of Oklahoma, where, at the end of the course work, he gave a demonstration of how to learn a completely unfamiliar language in one hour from a monolingual native speaker. (This method was part of their class-work.) Not only did he do that, he gave an educated guess at what linguistic family that language belonged to and what part of the world the speaker was from and observations about the language and culture of the speaker. To a first-time observer, it was awesome (as it was to me every time I saw him do it).

Pike was supposedly nominated many times for the Nobel Peace Prize, but since there is no shortage of candidates (278 in 2014), he never made the final cut. He visited several continents and a dozen countries learning indigenous languages. His contributions to linguistics were of a practical nature. To grammemes, phonemes, morphemes, and lexemes, Pike added the concept of tagmemes (with limited success). He also made the initial distinction between -emics and -etics. His study of languages was strictly from a practical viewpoint, putting him at odds with the theoretical generative linguistics of Noam Chomsky. This eventually led to Chomsky’s accusing Pike’s students of fraud because no natural language could disagree with his predetermined “universal grammar” which is so natural that it must be hard-wired into all human brains. Specifically what these native speakers don’t know that they are missing are recursion, which has been independently proven to be absent from Pirahã and object-verb-agent ordering for Hixkaryana.

SIL has many positive things going for it – in particular, the Ethnologue: Languages of the World and several toolbox and font technologies for linguists to use in the field. Unfortunately, it is also the center of several controversies. One of the negatives which was rumored when I was there was that it provided information for the CIA. This has two parts: the helpful transparent publications available at The World Factbook, and slightly less helpful fact that they provided information for counter-insurgency and that they helped displace indigenous populations so that their land could be exploited.

In 1980, the year after Pike stepped down as president, the Inter-American Indian Institute noted that SIL’s Christian missionaries might not be in the best secular tradition and that they were introducing Capitalism into indigenous cultures. This led immediately to Ecuador terminating their arrangement with SIL, followed by their expulsion, which also occurred in Brazil, Mexico, and Panama, and included increased restrictions in Columbia and Peru. In 1987, the University of Oklahoma terminated their hosting of SIL for the same reasons.

Then there are the inarguable charges that they were changing indigenous cultures by importing evangelical Christianity and introducing practices that change the culture and promote language extinction. The irony in Brazil is that the government-sponsored program, FUNAI (Fundação Nacional do Índio, their equivalent to our Bureau of Indian Affairs), is doing exactly what they accused SIL of doing – introducing Portuguese to replace Pirahã, providing electricity and television, and in general, introducing the “superior” Brazilian culture.

FUNAI has helped maintain other indigenous cultures by introducing machinery, industrial fertilizers, and pesticides to these groups so that those cultures could continue living as they had for hundreds of years. FUNAI blew their budgets on the specialists they had to hire to provide all this help, and did nothing when outside “civilization” encroached on their lands for gold, oil, and lumber. Worse than any of this, is that by 1957, the predecessor organization (Serviço de Proteção ao Índio) was protecting them with torture and genocide (using among other things, arsenic laced candy) to gain land rights to indigenous lands.

Sorry about the detour into SIL and governmental politics, but this is something that will return to haunt the future of many cultures. Now it’s time to return to those two languages and the people using them.

Let me begin with El Beni, a department (the equivalent of a state) in northeast Bolivia that borders Brazil on Beni’s east side. I first learned about this from Charles Mann (1491, which you should read if you haven’t already). El Beni is mainly lowlands (part of the Amazon basin) at about 155 meters above sea level. It has dozens of major tributaries to the Amazon as well as many lakes and lagoons. Much of it acts as floodplains.

It may not sound idyllic, but beginning at by least 4000 B.C.E. (as determined by carbon dating pottery shards) a major civilization started building 20,000 man-made hills, complete with earthen causeways connecting them, roads, canals, dykes, reservoirs, and raised agricultural fields. When the savanna flooded seasonally, the entire civilization used a zigzagging network of earthen weirs to trap fish. To maintain the savannah, the inhabitants burned off the encroaching forests during the dry season, a practice still in use today.

The abundance of pottery in the mounds suggests a very long occupation of the region. One idea for using so many ceramics is that they aerated the muddy soil. The raised agricultural fields supported a dense population, which lasted until around 1400 C.E. when it went into steep decline hypothesized to have been caused by droughts or possibly disease. I have necessarily left out a lot of information that you can fill in with Earthmovers of the Amazon.

Now comes what may be an unanswerable question. Who built all this? Looking at the current indigenous populations and assuming it’s one of those, several answers have been given.

It seems the overwhelming consensus is that it is the ancestors of the current-day Moxos, which even Wikipedia agrees were the ones. Their language, Mojos language, is divided into two distinct dialects, both of which belong to the southern (Maipurean) branch of the Arawakan family. The family is widespread, going as far north as the Carribean. Unless there was a massive diffusion of the original population all the way across the Amazon basin with complete changes in environment along the way, I would expect the Beni mound people to have a very old nearly isolated language, possibly forming its own family.

Closely related to the Moxos are the Bauré who have also been suggested to be descendents of the builders. In 2006, there were only 980 remaining Bauré, of whom only 40 still spoke the language, which again is part of the Arawakan family.

The dark-horse candidates are the hunter-gatherer group, the Chimané (also spelled Tsimané). They believe themselves to be the descendents of the earthmover civilization. Unlike the Moxos and Baurés who converted to Catholicism under guidance of the Jesuits, the Chimané resisted the efforts of the Dominicans and Franciscans as well as later evangelistic and messianic attempts. They remain a shaman-based society even with intermarriage with more recent native groups who have been settling in their territory. Marriage is into the woman’s family, and polygyny with sisters is practiced.

Although the Chimané language usually classified as belonging to the Mosetén family along with only two other closely related languages, it is sometimes considered to be an isolated language with the other two languages as dialects. There are over 5000 native speakers, so it may not die out soon. It is this isolation which makes me favor the Chimané as the proper descendents.

Now that we’re through with the history, I can get to the language I really wanted to talk about. It belongs to a small group of recent interlopers to the Beni. They are the Sirionó, who originated from the Gran Chaco, a hot semi-arid lowland to the south of El Beni, which crosses into Paraguay and Argentina. Linguistic evidence suggests that they began arriving at El Beni as late as the 17th century. Alan Holmberg was one of the first outsiders to live among them in the early 1940s and write about what he learned in 1950.

They are a semi-nomadic people living on the edge of existence. At that time, they had no clothes, domestic animals, musical instruments, art, and little concept of the universe. They couldn’t count past three nor make a fire (instead, carrying it from place to place). They lived in lean-tos with wooden supports and roofs of haphazardly placed palm fronds that were ineffective against rain and insects – not a pleasant life.

Before the 1920s, there were at least 3000 Sirionós who were cut down by epidemics of smallpox and influenza, leaving only about 150. As would be expected, this bottleneck led to inbreeding with relatives and had noticeable genetic effects. The Bolivian army helped out by hunting them down and interning them in prison camps.

Like the Chimané, the Sirionó are a matrilineal culture with men living in the wife’s community. Somewhat like the Chimané, they fended off Jesuit missionaries, and they live without a recognizable religion.

The Sirionó language is part of the Tupi family and is spoken by about 400 natives, of whom it is the only language for about 50 people. The language can be whistled. It contains archaic elements which set it apart from other languages in the family. Along with the impoverished Sirionó existence, there are noticeable deficiencies in the language attributable to not being needed.

The second group that I wanted to talk about is the Pirahã. They are very different from any other culture I know about. All that matters is direct personal experience, so they have no history beyond living memory. They live in relatively secure surroundings along the Maici river in northwestern Brazil where there is plentiful food year-round.

They also have an exceptionally simple kinship system single words that extend to parents or elders, siblings of either sex, sons, daughters, and a catchall word that includes stepchildren, favorite child, etc. They are a hunter-gatherer society with no hierarchy.

The Pirahã use canoes daily, but cannot make one themselves. They rely on neighboring tribes to supply them, and if a canoe wears out, they patch it. They live in simple huts and have few possessions, such as pots, pans, knives, or machetes. They also make very few things, like scrapers, bags, and bows and arrows.

They generally eat food as soon as they get it and don’t store it. In spite of plentiful food, they often go hungry to remain “hard”. They rarely sleep through the night, preferring 15 minute to 2 hour naps, both night and day. They trade Brazil nuts and sex for tools and consumables, since chastity is not held in high regard.

Although they decorate necklaces to ward off spirits, they do not believe in any kind of god. When Daniel Everett was explaining Jesus, they lost interest when they discovered he had never seen Jesus, consistent with requiring personal evidence to back up a claim. They do, however, believe in visible, tangible spirits, which may take the form of such things as a person, jaguar, or tree. They have remained uninterested in having somebody else’s god introduced to them.

The Pirahã language, in spite of its supposed simplicity seems to be extremely difficult to learn. It is the only remaining member of the Mura family, and all related languages are now extinct, making Pirahã a language isolate.

It has many quirks that make it different from anything else. It has only 7 consonants and 3 vowels (according to The Pirahã People), the fewest of any known language. It is claimed that there are only 10 phonemes, also the fewest of any language. Among these are two exceptionally rare phonemes (which cannot be duplicated with this font), one of which is the “voiceles bilabial post-trilled dental stop” used in only 2 other languages (one of which is nearly extinct, with only a dozen speakers), and the other, which is a “lateral alveolar-linguolabial double flap” used only in Pirahã (and made when “the tongue strikes the upper gum ridge and then strikes the lower lip”). What makes all of this workable is that it is a tonal language with 3 tones claimed, giving a high degree of allophonic variation. It also has the smallest set of pronouns, which some linguists think was borrowed from Nheengatu. Interestingly, consonants and vowels can be completely eliminated and the meaning conveyed through pitch, stress, and rhythm alone, allowing communication by whistling, humming, or embedding in music.

Pirahã doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural and they have no names for numerals. There are allophones for ‘one’ and ‘two’ that differ only in tone, however, they can also be interpreted as ‘few’ and ‘fewer’, depending on circumstances.

They also have now specific names for colors, only distinguishing between ‘light’ and ‘dark’. If they want a color, it is borrowed from an object of that color; for instance, ‘red’ might be ‘[like] blood’.

There are only 3 personal pronouns, although there are words that seem like pronouns that cannot be used independently the way one would use a pronoun. It is thought that these are actually nouns; they are ‘she’ and three forms of ‘it’ (animal, aquatic animal, and inanimate things). There is a plausible argument that the pronouns were adapted from a neighboring language, Nheengatu.

Pirahã is an agglutinative language. There are generally three ways to form new words or meanings from base words or morphemes (basic units of meaning). Agglutination simply concatenates morphemes to form a new word. An isolating language uses a word with auxiliary words in some order to produce a new meaning for the original word. An inflective or fusional language attaches an affix to a word to change its meaning. Most languages use all three methods for creating new words, but they are classified by the predominant way of doing it.

Pirahã verbs are unique in many ways. There is no tense or mood – everything is in the present. However, it is very aspect-rich. Aspect marks such things as whether an action, occurrence, or state is complete (perfective), reaching a goal (telic), commencing, continuing, or repeated.

Daniel Everett is one of very few (as well as the first, and possibly the only) non-native speakers of Pirahã, and he noted that it is non-recursive. That is, it cannot combine words, phrases, or clauses (with words like ‘and’ or ‘or’) to create a new arbitrarily long sentence. He did originally say that there was a morpheme, which when attached to a verb, allowed a clause to be converted into a gerund (noun) to one level of depth, however, after 29 years of further study, he has retracted that, citing a previous theoretical bias. He now thinks that the added morpheme simply marks a clause as “old information”.

As mentioned earlier, this has led to vigorous disputes with other linguists, not the least of which is Naom Chomsky, who refuses to accept that real-world languages can violate his precepts, and who calls Everett a charlatan. Recently (2010), Uli Sauerland performed a phonetic reanalysis of experimental data in which Pirahã speakers were asked to repeat utterances by Everett. Sauerland reports that these speakers make a tonal distinction in their use of the “embedding” morpheme that “provides evidence for the existence of complex clauses in Pirahã”. Still more recently, a group from MIT analyzed earlier recordings of native Pirahã speakers and found no evidence for recursion. Ironically, Everett’s doctoral dissertation was a construction of Pirahã according to Chomsky’s principles.

There is an epilogue to this story. When Daniel Everett and his family first contacted the Pirahã, they were fresh shiny (albeit, linguistically very talented) evangelical missionaries determined to bring Truth to these poor heathens. As mentioned earlier the Pirahã quickly lost interest when they discovered that Everett had never physically encountered Jesus and that the great Man upstairs was unperceivable in any way without already believing in Him. After years of living with them, Daniel began to understand the philosophy of living in the present, which was the backbone of their language. He realized that it is the essence of why they were so confounded happy.

His change in attitude eventually led him to see that a God with all Its threats and promises was irrelevant to anyone’s needs. It led to a disruption with his family and his eventual divorce from his first wife, Keren.

Everett has developed an alternative to Chomsky’s idea the language is innate to humans. He sees it as a way to solve a common human problem, the need to communicate efficiently and effectively. I may eventually write about my own ideas on language, which view another important property of the brain as being innate, and that language follows from both that property and the fact that we can modify the sounds we make (and secondarily, using other means of signaling). It is, indeed, a tool, but it requires the physical ability to use language before it can be developed.

The last topic I wanted to mention was the relation between language and culture. The most common statement of this connection is the Sappir-Whorf hypothesis, which in one of its many forms says that “linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour”. There seems to be little doubt that the Pirahã language reshaped Daniel Everett’s way of thinking. In fact this one example argues volumes regardless of the subtleties and vagaries of all the theoretical arguments given for Sappir-Whorf.

The converse of sorts seems to be indicated by the Sirionó language. An extreme impoverishment of environment affects both culture and language.

In spite of my shortcomings with language, I see its mechanics as being at the foundations of both mathematics and the sciences, which I hope to write about in the future.


I apologize, but this is the first time I’ve tried combining Word with WordPress, and it’s deleting all hyperlinks after some preset number, and I don’t know how to get around. A lot of information has been lost. I’ll get back on this in the after I wake up.



5 responses to “Rambling #2

  1. Great stuff. As Brazil is my adopted home this was tremendously interesting. As an Australian, though, i’ve always found it fascinating that no aboriginal language (it’s believed there were 900 nations prior to 1777, most of those languages now lost) had a word to represent “ownership.” It’s a beautiful thing, and breaks your heart to contemplate the confusion which must have ensued post-settlement in trying to understand these strange invaders whose very lives revolved around a concept that was utterly alien.

    • Thanks for your note. Not many cultures have been able to withstand the “civilizing” influences of their more technological displacers. I’m always impressed by the ones who do, but so often it’s a terrible price as with the Sirionó or even worse, enslavement and complete obliteration as happened to the Caribbean Taíno culture when Columbus invaded.

      It’s a mistake to think that everything was love and roses before Columbus, but at least it wasn’t total domination.

  2. Thank you. Today I learned. I guess I am more into culture–especially the why’s but you opened my eyes in the way the Pirahã see things. Very interesting–practical people. I wonder with less word usage (my interpretation) what their thoughts might be. What type of cognitive thinking are they capable of? What type of reasoning skills do they use? Are there laws or rules they use to govern themselves or something else? I feel that I should have googled before I began my comment but….

    I really find it interesting about the lack of sleep and the way they seem to make do without really producing/creating. I’m trying not to make any assumptions or draw conclusions. It is very fascinating to think of a people in this way. I wonder how their language development as a person ages differs from say a typical American–US person. I just had a flashback to graduate school.

    The canoe part gets me. 🙂 And, sexual trades…that seems logical. I guess I wonder if they have any emotional attachment to family or partners…but I will stop here. I really enjoyed reading your post. – Amy 🙂

    • Excellent questions. (I’m sorry that most of my links were not picked up by WordPress since they would have given you the information you needed.) I suspect that living completely in the present has a major effect on how they view things. In spite of Pirahã’s structural “simplicity”, it is extremely difficult to learn to speak. The missionaries prior to Everett’s arrival had spent 20 years and never learned how to speak the language. Everett was singled out as being extremely linguistically gifted (which is why he was chosen to attempt learning Pirahã), and it took 7 years the first time to absorb an adequate knowledge of the language.

      Unless you’ve tried to distinguish double vowels or double consonants in languages such as Japanese or the Dravidian languages, you would be surprised at how much you miss. On top of that, Pirahã is a tonal language, and distinguishing tones without knowing what they are ahead of time is tricky. Add to this, the two utterly unpronounceable phonemes, and you’ve got a full plate. The grammar is also unlike anything else you’re likely to encounter.

      Something that I don’t think I mentioned in my post is that for the lack of everything we might consider essential, the Pirahã have a word for every object they encounter in their environment. That includes plants and animals and would be equivalent to our knowing the names of every bird, insect, tree, fish, or anything else we encounter. It’s all the more impressive considering that they live in a rain forest. Their language seems adequate for anything they would need.

  3. Pingback: Getting Serious About Mathematics | The Infrequent Atheist

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