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The Pirahã people of the Amazon River basin live in the present. They also speak a unique language, ...
2021-04-21 13:00:00

The Happy Minimalists
The Language of the Pirahã People

The Happy Minimalists

The Pirahã are not afraid of death, because if they are alive, why should they worry about it? They don’t plan for what will be and don’t reminisce about what was. They’re cheerful, busy with the here and now – and still, they triggered one of the largest linguistic wars in the world.

Read in 12 minutes

The Pirahã people, inhabitants of the Amazon River basin, call themselves híaitíihí, ‘straight’, while all outsiders are aoói – ‘crooked, twisted’. The ‘straight ones’ use a language that is unrelated to any other living dialect in the world. It encompasses just 11 sounds (women only use 10), it lacks numerals and colour names. Daniel Everett, a missionary-turned-anthropologist – the only person from outside of the tribe who knows the language well – also claims that their syntax has no recursion, a characteristic which, according to the dominant linguistic theory, is fundamental to any human language, and even distinguishes Homo sapiens as a species. Thanks to this controversial theory, the world heard about the 300-strong tribe and its researcher. What’s more, it created a stir in the world of science, engaging the most brilliant minds among the ‘twisted’ in a heated debate.

A Brazilian western

The 26-year-old Everett’s light aircraft lands on the Maici River in Amazonia in 1977. He has an ambitious plan: to learn the language of the isolated people (here he will succeed). The young missionary linguist’s work is to be crowned by a translation of the Bible. He believes that introducing the Indigenous inhabitants to revelation will cause them to convert to Catholicism (here he’ll fail utterly). Everett will describe nearly three decades of his research on the Pirahã language and culture in a book entitled Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (2008). This report, written with much gusto, also documents the process of how the author dissolves into the culture he is to study.

Everett was sent to Amazonia by the Summer Institute of Linguistics – an organization associated with the American Presbyterian Church that analyses the languages of Indigenous peoples for evangelizing purposes. It’s a difficult mission, because nobody in the Pirahã tribe speaks any other language (apart from rudimentary Portuguese). For the scholar with a talent for languages, this won’t be the biggest obstacle. What’s more difficult is that Everett wasn’t prepared for an encounter with a different culture – for this he will almost pay with his own life, and the lives of his family.

The Pirahã consider their land, situated around the Maici River, to be the best place to live. Both in the rainy and in the dry season the river provides them with enough food, supplemented by gathering and hunting in the Amazon jungle. These favourable conditions permit a life in which material culture is reduced to a minimum, and the outside world’s offer of consumption doesn’t seem attractive to the ‘straight ones’ (with a few small exceptions). This inwardness and the lack of positive value assigned to the wonders of the outside world distinguishes the Pirahã from other tribes, which underwent acculturation much more easily after their encounter with colonizers. The Pirahã – first encountered by Portuguese gold prospectors over 200 years ago – have preserved their cultural model, wisely choosing not to intensify their contact with outsiders.

Apart from missionaries (Everett and his two predecessors), merchants plying their river trade provide a sporadic link with the outside world. These merchants are most frequently caboclos of mestiço extraction, who purchase the Amazonian bounty, mainly Brazil nuts, in exchange for items that the Pirahã consider useful: fish hooks, batteries, clothes or firearms, as well as cachaça – sugarcane alcohol. (Cachaça trade is banned on Indigenous territories by FUNAI, or the National Indian Foundation.)

‘Bitter water’ – as the Pirahã call cachaça – will be the catalyst of the narrator’s anthropological growth. The village men, inebriated by a Brazilian merchant, let themselves be persuaded to kill the missionary and his family in exchange for a new shotgun. Everett, woken up in the middle of the night, hears the drunk men spurring each other on to kill him. Like the lone ranger from an old western (the book features lots of this sort of self-mythologizing), Dan hides his wife Karen and their three children in the only room with a lock and goes straight to the hut where the slurring can be heard. He disarms the neighbours, who, sadly, include some of the language teachers he’s befriended, and returns with their arsenal – bows, machetes and two shotguns – to his verandah, to guard his sleeping family. The next day he reaches an understanding with the villagers. This nocturnal adventure gives him food for thought. How is it possible that the river merchant who thought that the white intruder was ruining his business found it so easy to persuade Everett’s village informants, with whom he’d become so familiar during his six-month stay, to attempt murder? Everett realizes that he knows nothing about his hosts’ culture and just studying the language is not enough.

Focused only on the present

The researcher explains that his initial inaction in that area was due to being disappointed with the scant material culture and lack of distinct ritual. In the dry season, the Pirahã live on riverine beaches, making do with flimsy bowers that offer some shade. In the rainy season, when the water level rises, they construct makeshift huts; scattered haphazardly along the river, they don’t form any structural plans known from ethnological accounts of Yanomami or Bororo architecture. They make bows and arrows, and baskets to carry nuts – which, interestingly, they discard after an exchange is made, weaving new ones before the next excursion. There is no attachment to objects. They have their own bark pirogues, but they prefer to buy or steal Brazilians’ sturdier canoes. Trying to help his ‘wards’, Everett even hires an instructor to teach the ‘straight ones’ how to build a kayak. They successfully construct one boat, but buy the next one from their neighbours, as before. “Pirahãs don’t make canoes,” they tell the surprised Everett. Importing outside know-how is not of value to them.

Another feature of the Pirahã culture that Everett discovers – one that turns out to be essential – is their focus on the present and their related lack of interest in everything that’s beyond direct experience. The Pirahã live in the here and now, and they are happy. Perhaps even one of the happiest in the world, as later calculated by MIT psychologists during Everett’s next stay on the banks of the Maici. If one of the hunters asks the researcher about the customs of his country, it is to have a reason to laugh, not to learn something that goes beyond his experience.

Can an empiricist be converted?

The limited field of experience will be the reason for the failure of evangelization. The Pirahã are only serious about events they’ve observed themselves, or perhaps know from eyewitness accounts. Everett quotes the following conversation with the villagers:

“Dan, tell us: does Jesus look more like you or like us?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen him.”
“Maybe your father saw him?”
“No, Jesus lived a very long time ago.”
“Then why are you even telling us about him?”

Everett, already equipped with anthropological conceptual apparatus, finds an almost complete lack of ritual in the culture. He links this to an aversion towards formally codifying abstract categories and an attachment to the tangible. He also finds no origin myths, which should – according to ethnological theory – bind every human community. Everett associates this lacuna with a reluctance to speak of everything that is distant in time. He does, however, make note of events – dances during which the villagers impersonate the spirits of the dead or of the jungle. Or perhaps it should be said that it’s the spirits that impersonate the villagers, because the performances are mediumistic.

Contact with spirits is an everyday experience and seems as real as evening fireside chats with other villagers. One day in 1980, Everett is woken up by a hubbub of voices at the riverside. He runs there with his daughter; the crowd is watching the opposite riverbank, but neither Dan nor his daughter Kris see anything there. The villagers are looking at a spirit called Xigagai, who – according to their reports – is shouting that anyone who goes into the jungle that day will die. It is then that Everett realizes the extent of the distance separating him from the community that he has, by then, become close with.

Despite taking a liking to him, the Pirahã don’t consider Everett to be one of them, either. The American isn’t willing to give up his habits, including dietary ones. When, weary of the local diet, he orders lettuce from a faraway town, one of his teachers in the village tells him: “Dan, you’re not Pirahã. The Pirahã don’t eat lettuce.” He tries to close the distance, ‘leave the verandah’ (his house is much more solid than the villagers’ huts), and participate in community life. He joins the barefoot hunters in the jungle, but because he is wearing all the accoutrements of a colonial conqueror, he’s making so much noise that the hunters leave him in the forest and go on alone. A real difference between them is revealed when – according to the rules of puritan upbringing – Everett decides to punish his eldest daughter for inappropriate behaviour. He tells her to take a switch and wait for him outside the village. Seeing the crying child, the villagers ask him what he is about to do. They don’t use corporal punishment themselves; the would-be missionary gets a valuable lesson from the Indigenous people and gives it up, too.

Everett wanted to preach to the Pirahã to protect them from the fear of death – only they don’t experience it. In their culture, death is tangibly close, and they don’t deny it. Eschatological promises do not appeal to happy people who live in the present. Everett concludes that the culture he stems from – with its institutionalized religion – has remained at the stage of postulate since its dawn and has nothing to offer to happy minimalists. What’s more, it no longer appeals to him either. Eventually, years later, Everett becomes an atheist – as he himself admits, it is due to the influence of the culture he had set out to study. When he informs his family, his wife divorces him and two of his three children stop talking to him. That is Everett’s personal balance sheet of his journey to Pirahã country. But that is not the end of his struggles with hermetic communities.

Among linguists

The experiences that form the foundation of Everett’s personal failures become a springboard for his academic career, which gathers pace thanks to an article published in 2005 in Current Anthropology. In it, he presents the theory that the language he is studying doesn’t feature recursion, i.e. the flow of one structure into another. In Pirahã syntax, it is impossible to embed one sentence into another. The sentence “Dan says he knows God, who created the stars” is impossible; it will be uttered as: “Dan says he knows God. God created the stars.” This thesis will set Everett on a collision course with the world’s most influential linguist, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky formulated the concept of generative grammar, which has dominated linguistics for half a century – it claims that linguistic competence is an inherent feature, common to all humanity, an ability to learn a language by recognizing its structures that is embedded into the genetic code of Homo sapiens. Let’s also mention Chomsky’s favourite cosmic metaphor, a good illustration of the universal character of his language theory: “A Martian scientist observing humans might conclude that there is just a single language, with minor variants.”

In the renowned 2002 paper “The Faculty of Language”, co-published with M.D. Hauser and W.T. Fitch in Science, the doyen of linguistics announces that recursion is an intrinsic feature of every human language. Not only that, but it is what differentiates human language from the ways other animate beings communicate. Chomsky is surrounded by a group of followers who are ready to stamp out any heresy within the universal theory of language. Everett, who publishes his paper three years later, doesn’t have to wait long for a reaction. Critics suspect him of falsifying his research (after all, nobody apart from him knows Pirahã); they also make the accusation that his paper is nothing but an attempt to make a name for himself in the world of science by criticizing Chomsky’s authority. In an interview for the Brazilian daily Folha de S.Paulo, Chomsky himself calls his former colleague and student (in the 1980s, Everett worked at MIT’s linguistics department) a charlatan. The debate gets heated. Tom Bartlett, the respected editor of the science section of The Chronicle Review, describes linguistic spats like this: “Linguists are a deeply divided group of scientists who aren’t even able to agree on what it is that they’re arguing about and who have a tendency to criticize their opponents and call them fools, fraudsters, or both fools and fraudsters. Similar divisions exist to varying degrees in all fields, but linguists seem unusually antagonistic. The word ‘brutal’ appears again and again, as does ‘malicious’, ‘ridiculous’, and ‘juvenile’.”

Starting a feud with one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century comes at a cost. We see Everett in the Australian documentary The Grammar of Happiness as he organizes another expedition to the banks of the Maici, this time accompanied by cognitivist Ted Gibson, an MIT professor. They want to collect material for a computer analysis of the Pirahã language in order to demonstrate, on models of its possible grammars, its lack of recursion. The expedition turns into a fiasco: FUNAI retracts Everett’s permit to enter the reservation, their justification being one of needing to protect the Indigenous culture from the missionary. The real reason is a letter, or more properly a denunciation, which a Brazilian linguist called Cilene Rodrigues sent to the institution granting permits for research in Amazonia. In her letter to FUNAI, she accuses Everett of reaching racist conclusions in his research. Apart from the act, a transgression of the standards of scientific debate, the accusation should be considered misguided. The American researcher appreciates the tribe’s knowledge, which encompasses the local environment, he admits that even Pirahã children know thousands of species of the Amazon’s flora and fauna. Even if he romanticizes the Pirahã in his book, using the stereotype of the ‘noble savage’, he also frequently emphasizes how functional their way of life is. He also examines his own missionary past with disarming honesty: “I understood at a late stage that it is a form of colonialism.”

In the film, we see Everett trying to intervene – in vain – at the FUNAI headquarters in Brasília. He also wants to give a lecture at a university there, but the room is almost empty: apart from a handful of students there are only two employees of the linguistics department. A supportive professor apologizes and clarifies the reason for the boycott: “Our department is very ‘generative’.” Another group tells him: you are not one of us.

Vying for precedence

In his next book, Language: The Cultural Tool (2012), Everett develops the thesis of his previous one, which claims that language cannot be explained without referring to the culture in which it is embedded (in opposition to the universal school of thought). For Everett, the lack of any perfective tenses, quantifiers, numerals or colour names in the Pirahã language stems directly from their cultural values – a focus on unmediated experience and the present. The language also has multiple channels of discourse: it can be whistled, murmured or even shouted. This is possible because it is tonal (like, for example, Chinese), so the same word can have many meanings. Take, for example, the above-mentioned aoói (‘outsider’): depending on the intonation and stress it can also mean ‘skin’, ‘ear’ or ‘nut shell’. Each channel is used in different circumstances: the whistled one is used when hunting, the shouted is used during the rainy season. According to Everett, this is further proof of the precedence culture takes over language. Thus he revisits the ethnolinguistic, relativistic theory of language formulated by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, anthropologists who studied the languages of Indigenous peoples of North America at the beginning of the 20th century. They reached the conclusion that languages can only be explained through cultural differences. This is contrary to the universal grammar paradigm, which emphasises similarities in all human languages, and has side-lined relativistic theories for many years.

A changed and battered Everett leaves the linguistic battlefield. In his most recent book How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention, he reaches deeper into time (how very un-Pirahã!), focusing on Homo erectus and the beginnings of language. As we see in the last scene of The Grammar of Happiness, on the banks of the Maici, bathrooms are being built and a generator has been installed, and the young Pirahã are learning Portuguese in the village school. The conservative model that doesn’t admit external values is breaking down. But the principle of direct experience, which lets one eliminate excess information, is something we – who live in a civilization filled with the hum of incessant bit streams – should at least consider.


Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz

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