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Title: Re: 18.1184: Counter to Pirahan-immediacy thesis?
Submitter: Chris Sinha
Description: Below is a letter sent to The New Yorker in response to an article entitled
“The Interpreter” by John Colapinto which appeared in The New Yorker of
April 16 2007. The article is a lengthy and interesting account of Dan
Everett's work on the Pirahã language of Amazonia. Our letter draws on our
own visit to the Pirahã and on our fieldwork with another Amazonian
indigenous community. We do not know if, or how much of, the letter will be
published, but we think members of this list might be interested. The work
on time in Amondawa discussed below is reported in an article which will
imminently be submitted for publication.

-- Vera da Silva Sinha and Chris Sinha


We are an anthropologist and a psychologist who visited the Pirahã in
January 2006, at the behest of FUNAI (the Brazilian Indian Agency) and the
municipality of Humaitá, in the State of Amazonas (Brazil). We were asked
to do so because (we were informed) the Pirahã community had requested the
provision of schooling. Our visit (by boat) took place in the company of
FUNAI, FUNASA (health agency) and municipal officials, and an interpreter.
The request for our visit was issued because one of us (Vera) has
experience of establishing an indigenous language school in another
Amazonian community, the Amondawa, who speak a Tupi Kawahib language
unrelated to Pirahã. We communicated with Dan Everett about our visit, and
during our stay we experienced at first hand the cultural patterns
described by John Colapinto, and by Everett in his article in Current
Anthropology. Not having knowledge of the Pirahã language, and not being
confident in attempting to understand it via an interpreter, we made no
attempt to confirm or disconfirm Everett’s linguistic analysis. Everett’s
data and arguments are compelling, and they are fully consistent with the
activities, dwellings, speech, songs and dance that we observed. The Pirahã
language and culture seemed very distinctive in comparison to other
indigenous Amazonian communities of which we (notably Vera) had prior
experience. Nevertheless, we question the extent to which the Pirahã are
quite as spectacularly unique and “different” as is suggested in your article.

To begin with, there exists, as well as so far uncontacted indigenous
groups in Rondônia State (Brazil), at least one other monolingual Amazonian
community, the Zuruhuã, who resist interaction with strangers. Many other
indigenous groups have older community members who are monolingual.
Monolingual speakers of other Amazonian languages are reluctant in just the
same way as the Pirahã to engage in culturally “alien” tasks designed by
linguists and psychologists and administered by strangers. So the first
point we would make is that Tecumseh Fitch’s experiments may well be
intrinsically, and not merely circumstantially, inconclusive. This critical
point regarding what psychologists call cultural and ecological validity is
not new, and is not confined to Amazonian cultures, but it bears reiterating.

Secondly, several of the characteristics described for Pirahã are common to
other Amazonian (and other) languages, in particular the fusion of color
terms with substance terms, the absence of quantifiers, a highly restricted
numeral system, and the absence of grammatical tense. The last of these is
particularly instructive. As long ago as the 16th century, Father José de
Anchieta noted the absence of verbal tense in the Tupi languages of South
America (unrelated to Pirahã).We have been researching, together with our
colleagues Dr Wany Sampaio of the Federal University of Rondônia and Dr
Jörg Zinken of our Department, the linguistic organization of time concepts
in Amondawa. Our conclusion, in brief, is that this is radically different
from that displayed in the languages most studied by linguists. It is not
just a matter of a restricted number of terms, or of a lack of grammatical
marking, but of a system based not on countable units, but on social
activity, kinship and ecological regularity, that does not permit
conventional “time-reckoning”. This is all the more striking when seen
against the fact that the Kawahib system for space and motion, which we
have also analyzed, displays a high degree of complexity. Space and motion
terms are often “recruited” by languages to organize time, but not, it
seems, by Amondawa, and we would hypothesize the same to be the case for
Pirahã, as well as other Amazonian languages and their speakers. This does
not mean that speakers of such languages have no time awareness, or that
they are unable to talk about events and activities occurring in time. But
they do not talk about time, or frame relations between events in terms of
a notion of time separate from the events and activities.

These findings are very much in line with Dan Everett’s proposal that
cultural practices and cultural norms influence both language structure and
conceptual organization – and with his rejection of a one-way, Whorfian
direction of influence from language to cognition. Cultures, however,
change over time, often as a consequence of contact with other cultures,
and we noted a particularly interesting instance of such change in the
Pirahã. We had been asked to evaluate the plausibility of establishing an
indigenous language school, and we had noted that Everett had written that
the Pirahã saw no point in, and therefore were unable to, engage in basic
literacy practices such as practising the writing of alphabetical
characters. During our visit, we provided young Pirahã men with the
wherewithal to do this, and at their request instructed them in how to do
it. They did so readily and with a high level of competence, and we have
audio-video recordings of them doing so. This occurred only after extensive
discussions amongst the community members about whether or not they wanted
a school (we have recordings of these discussions too).

This should remind us that cultures are not fixed entities, but dynamically
changing ways of living together in changing circumstances. We do not mean
to suggest that similarities between Pirahã culture and other Amazonian
cultures make the Pirahã merely one among an undifferentiated mass of
indigenous groups. All human cultures are unique, even if we can discern
common patterns holding across different groups, and even though they are
all products of our common humanity. Still less do we wish to downplay the
distinctiveness, carefully documented by Dan Everett, of the Pirahã
language. But to view just one group as the epitome of an exotic
“otherness” is to fail to do justice to all the dimensions of the variation
which still, today, can be encountered in the languages and cultures of the
world. As Franz Boas maintained, the study of language is part of the
psychology of the peoples of the world, and through comparative linguistics
we can make progress in understanding both variation, and the limits on
variation, of the human mind. For this reason we would find it regrettable
either to treat Pirahã as just an isolated case study, or to reduce the
significance of comparative language studies to the single issue of recursion.

Despite our general sympathy for Everett’s cultural approach to
linguistics, there remains, to our mind, a problematic aspect to his
account of Pirahã language and culture, namely his wide-reaching
attribution of “gaps” in the linguistic system to “absences” in the
culture. Our research on Amondawa conceptualizations of time leads us to
the speculative conclusion that the absence – as true of this Kawahib group
as for the Pirahã – of a cultural norm of accumulation (of food, seeds,
money and goods in general) is related to the Amondawa notion of time as
embedded in activity, kinship and seasonality. This is not the same,
however, as saying that there is no domain of common, collective
imagination of a time extending “outside” the present that is
psychologically real for members of the Amondawa culture.

Whether or not we choose to call them “creation myths”, the Amondawa have
narratives which both relate them to other groups and lend their own
community a history and an identity. These narratives link the present day
Amondawa to a time before “contact”, and in turn to the narratives that
were told in those times. Everett maintains that such narratives simply do
not exist for the Pirahã, but it may be that, in focusing on language
structure, he has not “heard” the narratives; or that, faced with the
competing narratives of Christianity, the Pirahã have chosen not to recount
their own narratives to him. The Pirahã, it seems, both from Everett’s
account and from our own observations, place little value on artefacts, or
on the cultural transmission of the making of artefacts. Their material
culture is, indeed, of an extreme simplicity. Yet the Pirahã could not
survive without reproducing their culture. Could it be that in their art,
in their language, and in their cultural identity, the Pirahã place more
value on performance than on product? If so, they would not be dramatically
different from many other human groups, merely at an extreme end of a
continuum from material production to performative mimesis. If this,
admittedly speculative, hypothesis has any truth, it might lead us to the
conclusion that Dan Everett’s cultural linguistic analysis is not as far
removed from Keren Everett’s observations about practices of cultural
learning and teaching as he himself seems to think.

Finally, we should not forget that the Pirahã, like most minority
indigenous groups, are very poor, and almost completely powerless in
relation to the encroaching outside world. During our visit the people were
hungry. Not just their way of life, but its foundation in their natural
environment, is threatened. It would be good if a renewed interest in what
we can learn from peoples like the Pirahã about the human mind were to be
accompanied by an equal concern for helping them to acquire the resources
necessary not just for survival, but for shaping their own future.

Vera da Silva Sinha, MA, MSc
Chris Sinha, PhD
University of Portsmouth
Department of Psychology
Date Posted: 23-Apr-2007
Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
LL Issue: 18.1234
Posted: 23-Apr-2007

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