Speaking Piraha

David Cowles

Sep 1, 2022

The hidden grammar censor in our Euro-brains whispers inaudibly, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Why did the speaker place ‘tall’ and ‘basketball’ in the same sentence, unless they are somehow connected?” A major fallacy that comes with a huge price tag.

(This article is dedicated to three high school classmates whose abiding interest in, and respect for, other cultures helped me form my own view of the world. Thank you: Tom, Geoff, and Joe M!)


We met the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe, in the August 18 Issue of Thoughts While Shaving (TWS).


Once again, just when we were sure we knew everything, we discovered we know nothing. Science and its pesky Scientific Method! It’s an outrageous inconvenience to have to study things as they are rather than as we think they should be! Piraha culture is one such example.


We thought Noam Chomsky (20th century, MIT) had taught us everything we’d ever need to know about language; then along comes Daniel Everett, anthropologist, linguist, Christian missionary. Everett makes the case that Chomsky’s entire theory of language has been falsified by the confirmed discovery of just one ‘aberrant’ language, Piraha – a language that today has only a few hundred native speakers.


Sorry, but that’s the nature of the Scientific Method. It admits no gray. One single ‘counter-example’ is all we need to show that we must broaden our hypothesis.


In Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (2008) Everett tells the story of his years living with the Piraha tribe in Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest. The Piraha have a most unusual language. So far as we can tell, it is not directly related to any other language, living or extinct. Piraha has features that are rarely, if ever, found in other human languages.


For example, Piraha has no words for numerals (1, 2, 3) or colors (red, green, blue). They do have quantitative concepts like ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ and they do have words that describe an object’s visual appearance - just no words for numerals or colors per se.


Example: I have a ‘whole fish.’ I start cutting the fish into pieces so that I can share it with my friends. When I’m done, I still have a ‘whole fish’ but now each of my friends has a ‘whole fish’ too.


There are a number of indigenous cultures that have what we would consider ‘truncated’ number systems. For example, we find many cultures that distinguish only three quantitative states: 1, 2, > 2 (or ‘many’) – a far cry from Sister Mary Martha’s 3rd grade multiplication tables. If only!


Yet, the mathematically inclined among us will correctly point out that we can reconstruct the entire set of rational numbers from just these three elements (1, 2, > 2). After all, computers do it with just 0’s and 1’s. But not so among the Piraha. The Piraha have no numerals, period. They just have fish, whole fish!


Even more esoterically, Piraha lacks the syntactic structure known by linguists as ‘recursion.’ Example: “The man, who was tall, played basketball.” Pretty simple concept, right? Not for the Piraha! This every day English sentence has no equivalent in their language.


Of course, the Piraha could say, and do say, “The man was tall. The man played basketball,” but notice the difference. In our language, the juxtaposition of ‘being tall’ and ‘playing basketball’ emits a faint whiff of causality, or at least coincidence, even if the speaker has no such connection in mind.


Our sentences regularly combine apparently unrelated predicates, suggesting connections that may not have been intended. Does that ever cause any problems? What do you think?


The hidden grammar censor in our Indo-European brains whispers inaudibly, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Why did the speaker place ‘tall’ and ‘basketball’ in the same sentence, unless they are somehow connected?” A major fallacy that comes with a huge price tag.


Connecting ‘tall’ and ‘basketball’ is not the worst thing we could ever do. Although plenty of shorties have played the game brilliantly, there is certainly some statistical correlation between height and success on the court. And if, as my JHS coach said to me, “Sonny, you stink”, well, it’s probably not the end of my world.


An advocate for Piraha might pile on, pointing out the obvious, “If there’s no necessary connection between being tall and playing basketball, why put the two ideas together in the same sentence?” Why indeed!


In Piraha, being tall and playing basketball would simply be presented as the serial attributes of a single human being, not necessarily connected in any way.


We could copy the Piraha. We could craft sentences like “John is tall, he likes Bach, he reads comics, and he snores when he sleeps.” The sentence enumerates certain facts about John without in any way suggesting that they are linked.


This way of speaking might impoverish literature, but it would certainly simplify interpersonal relations. Perhaps we should require our politicians to ‘walk like an Egyptian and speak like a Piraha,’ at least while they are campaigning.


Our language is a petri dish for the growth of stereotypes. Its recursive syntax encourages us to confuse statistical correlation with physical causation: Post hoc, ergo propter hoc – a logical fallacy, enshrined more or less forever in the structure of the language we call English.


In a recursive language like ours, attributes have a tendency to ‘bleed’ into substances. Wassein (what we are) is often mistaken for Dasein (that we are). Our view of the world is cockeyed, oops, I meant to say, Popeyed: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”


80 years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre provided a crucial correction. He showed Popeye that all our attributes belong to Wassein, none to Dasein. He called our Dasein, Le Neant, and he distinguished L’etre pour soi (I, you, s/he) from L’etre en soi (it).

When I was growing up (the ‘60s), we were all on a quest to find ourselves. Beatniks, hippies, reformers, and revolutionaries, we were all asking, though few of us realized it at the time, to identify those aspects of our Wassein that were also part of our Dasein. What are the things about me that are hardwired, i.e., from which I cannot escape?


It all seemed so self-evident (it isn’t). Of course, we should be whoever or whatever we are (we shouldn’t)! It makes sense (it doesn’t) to think that problems may arise if we are not who we are (we aren’t).


Fortunately, in this matter as in all others, Sartre had an answer: you can’t escape from the world you’re in. That’s your ‘facticity’…but it’s not you! In fact, you are (Dasein) precisely because you are not (Wassein). ~W = D: You are not what you are, Popeye; you are what you are not!


So, by extension, you can’t ‘find yourself’ either. You can’t find yourself because, turns out, there’s nothing for you to find. You are Le Neant (nothingness). Furthermore, you are ‘freedom,’ not just free but freedom. You are never what you are (en soi); you are always what you are striving to be (pour soi).


To ‘search for yourself’ is equivalent to playing hide-and-seek in the woods…all by yourself! Remember when you were a kid, and you thought you were playing hide and seek only to find out later that your friends had moved on to another game…or gone home for supper.


Not a good feeling! But it was only a game, a warm-up for life. Now, there is never anyone coming to find you, and no one is hiding for you to find. There are not two people, one hiding, the other seeking. There is just one person, neither hiding nor seeking, but just being!


My generation’s foundational myth was the belief that ‘finding ourselves’ would somehow make us happy, give our lives meaning, help us judge right from wrong, and point us in productive and satisfying directions. How’d that work out? (Don’t worry, the question is rhetorical.)


The belief that people are ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ lies at the root of all social conflict, especially war. We must kill the Hun (WW I), not because he (sic) is (Dasein) but because he is a certain way (Wassein).


Now replace ‘the Hun’ by any group of people you don’t like and see what happens. Do I really need to spell it out?


The illusion of identity is the root of social strife, and the Piraha have no identity. They aren’t someone or something, they are not even themselves; they just are! And they have their language to thank for that.


 


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.









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