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Meet the Piraha

David Cowles

Aug 18, 2022

Piraha has no words for numerals (e.g., 1, 2, 3) or for colors (e.g., red, green, blue).

In Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett (2008) tells the story of his work as a Christian missionary, an anthropologist, and an MIT linguist with the Piraha people in a semi-secluded section of 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 living language. ‘One-off’ languages like this are rare but not unheard of. Several one-off languages are spoken in Europe today: Basque, Magyar, Finnish, et al.

But that’s just the tip of iceberg for Piraha… (and that’s no mean feat, keeping an iceberg intact in the Amazon jungle.) Piraha has features that, so far as we know, are unique among human languages:

Piraha has no words for numerals (e.g., 1, 2, 3) or for colors (e.g., red, green, blue). Even more esoterically, the Piraha language lacks a syntactic element known to linguists as ‘recursion.' Example: “The man, who was tall, played basketball.” Pretty simple concept, right? Not for the Piraha! This everyday English sentence has no equivalent in Piraha. (Of course, the Piraha could say, and do say, “The man was tall. The man played basketball.”)

Again, so far as we know, Piraha is the only human language that lacks recursion. It had been thought that it was ‘recursion’ that distinguished human language from other forms of communication…but apparently not.

Undoubtedly related to their lack of numerals, the Piraha have no concept of arithmetic. A month's long effort by Everett and his family to teach the simplest arithmetic to the Pirahas failed. 1 + 1 never made it to 2. I’m not sure it even made it to 1.

I can imagine that many an American fourth grader would gladly spend a semester abroad with the arithmetic-free Piraha.


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