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LINGUIST List 18.1252

Wed Apr 25 2007

Disc: Discussion on Piraha

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Dan Everett, Discussion on Piraha

Message 1: Discussion on Piraha
Date: 23-Apr-2007
From: Dan Everett <dlevereilstu.edu>
Subject: Discussion on Piraha

Recent postings on Piraha from Chris and Vera Sinha and from Ian Goddard 
have raised reasonable questions regarding some of my claims on Piraha.

First, let me attempt to answer Ian's suggestion (see LINGUIST List issue
http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-1184.html) that 'Monkeys go to the
jungle' (from the New Yorker article) violates my contention that Piraha
lacks quantification. This is not universal quantification, but a generic
statement. Generics differ from universal quantification in allowing
exceptions and thus not requiring a truth to hold beyond immediate
experience. Another fact is that the absence of grammatical number in
Piraha makes translation sometimes misleading. We would say in English
'Monkeys', but the Piraha do not have plurals, so it isn't clear whether it
is best to translate what they say with a free English translation, using
plural, or as a sort of mass noun 'Monkey goes to the jungle' as in 'Fish
is good to eat' (where English treats 'fish' in this context like a mass noun).

With regard to the posting by the Sinhas (see LINGUIST List issue
http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-1234.html#1), I appreciate that they
did make a very brief trip to the Pirahas. Pirahas are by and large happy
to have visitors and are always, in my experience, extremely kind and
thoughtful and go out of their way to help people. Moreover, as the Sinhas
correctly state, cultures change. But in this case I don't think that what
they say violates anything I have said or represents any recent change in
the culture. Getting the Pirahas to sit and participate with you for a day
or two is quite easy. They are happy to do this and since they are
intelligent con-specifics, they will of course show good aptitude for
numerous tasks. But my claim is that when the *prolonged* attempt to
institute math or literacy, etc. classes of foreign culture is attempted,
the Pirahas will see this as an invasion of their culture and in conflict
with their values. Then I expect the results that I in fact report on in my
Current Anthropology paper. I don't think anything has changed, nor that
the Sinhas' brief experience is any contradiction to this.

They suggest that perhaps I have missed Piraha creationmyths because I was
a Christian and the Piraha didn't want to tell me theirmyths after they
heard mine (I suppose that is how the reasoning would go). This is not the
way things worked. Actually, the Pirahas and I have exchanged views on the
world many times over the past thirty years. I tell them what some other
cultures think, including the US Christian, and they tell me what they
think, namely, that the world is the way it has always been, no creation.

To some degree of course, this all depends on what we mean by 'myth'. If by
myth we mean fiction and creation from nothing stories, then the Pirahas
lack these. If we mean stories that bind us together (e.g. the Founding
Myths of the USA, which are perhaps not factual but are accepted as such by
the people who tell them - very similar to what I have in mind about some
Piraha stories (see Ray Raphael's book on this topic)) then the Pirahas
have these.

Dan Everett

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics

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