Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
|Official language of:||-|
Language and culture
The Pirahã language appears to have no embedding ; that is, it is not possible to embed one sentence within another, or one noun phrase within another. The possible complexity of a sentence, although fairly large, is finite and constrained. For example, it is possible to indicate possession of an object that is mentioned, as in "John's son", but it is not possible to indicate two levels of possessivity, as in "John's son's daughter". Interestingly, the Pirahã culture has the simplest known kinship system of any human culture; they appear not to keep track of relationships any more distant than biological siblings. Inbreeding is common.
The language is also unique in having no exact numbers. There are apparently only three words that roughly describe quantity, somewhat akin to "a few," "some," and "many." (There is no distinction between singular and plural and there is little distinction between individuated quantities and mass quantities, although this in and of itself is not so uncommon among languages.) It is not thought to be possible to distinguish between, for example, one big fish and several small fish. However, it might well be the case that researchers simply have not yet learned how to make the distinction.
Counting does not appear to be something the Pirahã do. They use only approximate measures, and in tests were unable to precisely distinguish between a group of four objects and a similarly-arranged group of five objects. When asked to duplicate groups of objects, they duplicate the number correctly on average, but almost never get the number exactly in a single trial.
Being (correctly) concerned that, because of this cultural gap, they were being cheated in trade, the Pirahã people asked a linguist that was studying them to teach them basic numeracy skills. It is said that after eight months of enthusiastic but fruitless daily study, the linguists concluded that they were incapable of learning the material, and discontinued the lessons. During this time supposedly not a single Pirahã had learned to count up to ten or to add 1 + 1. However, the use of candy as rewards calls into question whether the Pirahã were actually at the study sessions to learn to count.
There is also a disputed claim that Pirahã lacks any colour terminology. This and other surprising features of the language are examined in Daniel Everett 's paper Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language. The Pirahã language makes a fascinating data point for consideration of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and more generally for study of the link between language and cognition.
|Vowel||a i o|
* high tone
* /k/ is believed to be an optional portmanteau of /h/ and /i/.
** /s/ is used only by men; /h/ is substituted by women.
The total number of phonemes is just eleven if /k/ is counted as a phoneme; if not, then men use 10 phonemes, and women just nine (English, by comparison, has about forty to forty-five, depending on dialect). However, many allophones of these phonemes exist; /b/, for instance, has as allophones a bilabial nasal (equivalent to English /m/) and bilabial voiced trill, and /g/ has a highly unusual double flap that is unique to this language, as far as linguists currently know.
The International Phonetic Alphabet equivalents of the phonemes are:
Pirahã is agglutinative, using many affixes to communicate meaning. A lot of verbs in Pirahã are affixes, particularly verbs of existence or equivalence. For instance, the Pirahã sentence "there is a paca there" uses just two words:
- "káixihíxao.xaagá gáihí"
- paca .poss-exist/be there
Pirahã also uses suffixes which communicate evidentiality, a category of grammar which English morphology lacks. One such suffix, /-xáagahá/, means that the speaker is completely certain of his or her information:
- " hoagaxóai hi páxai kaopáp.i.sai.xáagahá"
- H. he fish-species catch.EPEN.NOMIN.certainty
Interestingly, Pirahã uses five discourse channels ; information may be spoken (the default), whistled, hummed, yelled or encoded in music. Whistled languages are rare, making Pirahã an interesting study in the strength of tone and stress in communication.
Pirahã has a few loan words, mainly from Portuguese. Pirahã "kóópo" ("cup") is from the Portuguese word "copo", and "bikagogia" ("business") comes from Portuguese "mercadoria".
Only about 150 people speak Pirahã, in eight villages along the Maici; however, most of these people are monolingual, knowing only a few words of Portuguese. It is the belief of the Pirahã people that their language is the best one to speak, so there seems to be no immediate danger of Pirahã dying out.
- Everett, Daniel. Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language (PDF file)
- SIL Ethnologue Report
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