LINGUIST List 18.1234

Mon Apr 23 2007

Disc: Piraha Discussion; Appropriateness of Linguistic Terminology

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <>

Directory         1.    Chris Sinha, Re: 18.1234184: Counter to Pirahan-immediacy thesis?
        2.    Jon Driver-Jowitt, New: Is Linguistic Terminology Always Appropriate?

Message 1: Re: 18.1184: Counter to Pirahan-immediacy thesis?
Date: 23-Apr-2007
From: Chris Sinha <>
Subject: Re: 18.1184: Counter to Pirahan-immediacy thesis?

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 ofApril 16 2007. The article is a lengthy and interesting account of DanEverett's work on the Pirahã language of Amazonia. Our letter draws on ourown visit to the Pirahã and on our fieldwork with another Amazonianindigenous community. We do not know if, or how much of, the letter will bepublished, but we think members of this list might be interested. The workon time in Amondawa discussed below is reported in an article which willimminently be submitted for publication.

-- Vera da Silva Sinha and Chris Sinha


We are an anthropologist and a psychologist who visited the Pirahã inJanuary 2006, at the behest of FUNAI (the Brazilian Indian Agency) and themunicipality of Humaitá, in the State of Amazonas (Brazil). We were askedto do so because (we were informed) the Pirahã community had requested theprovision of schooling. Our visit (by boat) took place in the company ofFUNAI, FUNASA (health agency) and municipal officials, and an interpreter.The request for our visit was issued because one of us (Vera) hasexperience of establishing an indigenous language school in anotherAmazonian community, the Amondawa, who speak a Tupi Kawahib languageunrelated to Pirahã. We communicated with Dan Everett about our visit, andduring our stay we experienced at first hand the cultural patternsdescribed by John Colapinto, and by Everett in his article in CurrentAnthropology. Not having knowledge of the Pirahã language, and not beingconfident in attempting to understand it via an interpreter, we made noattempt to confirm or disconfirm Everett’s linguistic analysis. Everett’sdata and arguments are compelling, and they are fully consistent with theactivities, dwellings, speech, songs and dance that we observed. The Pirahãlanguage and culture seemed very distinctive in comparison to otherindigenous Amazonian communities of which we (notably Vera) had priorexperience. Nevertheless, we question the extent to which the Pirahã arequite as spectacularly unique and “different” as is suggested in your article.

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

Secondly, several of the characteristics described for Pirahã are common toother Amazonian (and other) languages, in particular the fusion of colorterms with substance terms, the absence of quantifiers, a highly restrictednumeral system, and the absence of grammatical tense. The last of these isparticularly instructive. As long ago as the 16th century, Father José deAnchieta noted the absence of verbal tense in the Tupi languages of SouthAmerica (unrelated to Pirahã).We have been researching, together with ourcolleagues Dr Wany Sampaio of the Federal University of Rondônia and DrJörg Zinken of our Department, the linguistic organization of time conceptsin Amondawa. Our conclusion, in brief, is that this is radically differentfrom that displayed in the languages most studied by linguists. It is notjust a matter of a restricted number of terms, or of a lack of grammaticalmarking, but of a system based not on countable units, but on socialactivity, kinship and ecological regularity, that does not permitconventional “time-reckoning”. This is all the more striking when seenagainst the fact that the Kawahib system for space and motion, which wehave also analyzed, displays a high degree of complexity. Space and motionterms are often “recruited” by languages to organize time, but not, itseems, by Amondawa, and we would hypothesize the same to be the case forPirahã, as well as other Amazonian languages and their speakers. This doesnot mean that speakers of such languages have no time awareness, or thatthey are unable to talk about events and activities occurring in time. Butthey do not talk about time, or frame relations between events in terms ofa notion of time separate from the events and activities.

These findings are very much in line with Dan Everett’s proposal thatcultural practices and cultural norms influence both language structure andconceptual organization – and with his rejection of a one-way, Whorfiandirection 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 thePirahã. We had been asked to evaluate the plausibility of establishing anindigenous language school, and we had noted that Everett had written thatthe Pirahã saw no point in, and therefore were unable to, engage in basicliteracy practices such as practising the writing of alphabeticalcharacters. During our visit, we provided young Pirahã men with thewherewithal to do this, and at their request instructed them in how to doit. They did so readily and with a high level of competence, and we haveaudio-video recordings of them doing so. This occurred only after extensivediscussions amongst the community members about whether or not they wanteda school (we have recordings of these discussions too).

This should remind us that cultures are not fixed entities, but dynamicallychanging ways of living together in changing circumstances. We do not meanto suggest that similarities between Pirahã culture and other Amazoniancultures make the Pirahã merely one among an undifferentiated mass ofindigenous groups. All human cultures are unique, even if we can discerncommon patterns holding across different groups, and even though they areall products of our common humanity. Still less do we wish to downplay thedistinctiveness, carefully documented by Dan Everett, of the Pirahãlanguage. 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 variationwhich still, today, can be encountered in the languages and cultures of theworld. As Franz Boas maintained, the study of language is part of thepsychology of the peoples of the world, and through comparative linguisticswe can make progress in understanding both variation, and the limits onvariation, of the human mind. For this reason we would find it regrettableeither to treat Pirahã as just an isolated case study, or to reduce thesignificance of comparative language studies to the single issue of recursion.

Despite our general sympathy for Everett’s cultural approach tolinguistics, there remains, to our mind, a problematic aspect to hisaccount of Pirahã language and culture, namely his wide-reachingattribution of “gaps” in the linguistic system to “absences” in theculture. Our research on Amondawa conceptualizations of time leads us tothe speculative conclusion that the absence – as true of this Kawahib groupas 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 asembedded in activity, kinship and seasonality. This is not the same,however, as saying that there is no domain of common, collectiveimagination of a time extending “outside” the present that ispsychologically real for members of the Amondawa culture.

Whether or not we choose to call them “creation myths”, the Amondawa havenarratives which both relate them to other groups and lend their owncommunity a history and an identity. These narratives link the present dayAmondawa to a time before “contact”, and in turn to the narratives thatwere told in those times. Everett maintains that such narratives simply donot exist for the Pirahã, but it may be that, in focusing on languagestructure, he has not “heard” the narratives; or that, faced with thecompeting narratives of Christianity, the Pirahã have chosen not to recounttheir own narratives to him. The Pirahã, it seems, both from Everett’saccount and from our own observations, place little value on artefacts, oron the cultural transmission of the making of artefacts. Their materialculture is, indeed, of an extreme simplicity. Yet the Pirahã could notsurvive without reproducing their culture. Could it be that in their art,in their language, and in their cultural identity, the Pirahã place morevalue on performance than on product? If so, they would not be dramaticallydifferent from many other human groups, merely at an extreme end of acontinuum from material production to performative mimesis. If this,admittedly speculative, hypothesis has any truth, it might lead us to theconclusion that Dan Everett’s cultural linguistic analysis is not as farremoved from Keren Everett’s observations about practices of culturallearning and teaching as he himself seems to think.

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

Vera da Silva Sinha, MA, MScChris Sinha, PhDUniversity of PortsmouthDepartment of Psychology

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics

Message 2: New: Is Linguistic Terminology Always Appropriate?
Date: 07-Apr-2007
From: Jon Driver-Jowitt <>
Subject: New: Is Linguistic Terminology Always Appropriate?

As a neophyte in linguistics at the University of South Africa I have foundthe terminology perplexing. I realize that many terms are borrowed fromother disciplines, and have become entrenched, with implied meanings whichmight differ from the literal. However, should it not be linguistic sciencewhich is most concerned with, and leads, language and semantic accuracy?

The “linguistic” usage of the following English terms (in bold orunderscored) seem to differ from the literal, dictionary or logical use. Asuggested alternative, designed to evoke discussion, is in red italics(inverted commas in plain text)

Lateralisation. In the linguistic context it is intended to mean that oneof the cerebral hemispheres becomes the predominant site of neurologicalcontrol of a specific activity.For example right handedness is usually associated with left hemispheredominance.It seems to refer to the process by which dominant control is assumed. Theword is a misnomer in that the literal meaning is to make more lateral, andimplies the antonymic concept of medialisation (which does not exist). Amore appropriate term could be “asymmetrical cortical control”, which mightbe “contra laterally effective”.

Top down seems intended to mean “whole-word recognition”. Could a betterterm be “en bloc”?

Bottom up has nothing to do with bottom or up and seems intended to mean“by assemblage”.

Expansion This word seems intended to mean a “correction” if one isconsidering the replacement of an ungrammatical chain by a conventionalchain, in some circumstances, far from expanding the word it might be acontraction, such as in correcting “feets” to feet. A term that might beinstead considered is “extension”.

Extension seems inappropriate (because it might even be a reduction). Forexample children become reduced to the childs, when the plural rule isgeneralized.

Over-generalization could simply be termed “generalization”. (The term“under-generalization” does not appear to exist).

The term “function word” is also difficult for me. All words have afunction, none more than others. Perhaps the best word has an analogy inmusic. Words that come to my mind are “directives” or “conductives” or“blenders”.

Continuity referring to the possible extension of animal language intohuman use seems an inappropriate term. Animal language has not continuedinto humans; but instead has taken entirely new dimensions, perhaps byevolution. “Lineage theory” might be an appropriate term

The term communicative competence is too loose to be of value. It seems tomean “context-refined communication”.

Re-duplication. Why is this not simply “duplication?”

Linearity. It seems to mean a “sequencing” of words.

Behaviorism: Strictly speaking this word means the forming of an abstractof behaviour.Therefore it is an inappropriate word for the concept of the effects ofconditioning. Suggested is “Behavioristic” (pertaining to behavior),

Protowords. This implies that the utterance is a forerunning of a “word”. In reality this word-symbol becomes obsolete and is discarded, neverdeveloping into a word. Would not “token word” be better?

Holophrases also seems a misnomer. It is not a “complete” phrase.However, it will develop and extend into a phrasal string and therefore itcan be considered a “protophrase”. (Protos = first).

Reduction implies “omission”. (I realize that the “omission” is aconvention used for another meaning). I am told that /pa/ involvesreduction of the unstressed second syllable. Since the unstressed secondsyllable is never pronounced, it can’t be reduced, it must be omitted.

Object permanence is confusing to me. The very inverse is the case becausethe object is not permanent or said in another way, what is permanent isnot the object. How about “virtual substantiality”?

String (of words). The analogy (I assume) is from “string of beads, fishetc”. The wordused does not reflect the analogy. Perhaps “word-chain” would be better.

The extraordinary terms used in Language Theory are hard to credit.Bow-wow theory could be called “onomatopoeia”. The pooh-pooh theory couldbe called “reflexive” and the yo-ho theory could be called the“spontaneous”. Is there any evidence that the yo-ho theory is anydifferent from the pooh-pooh theory?

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics                             Semantics