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The singular Pirahã language

Mis à jour : mai 11

A few years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary on the French-German channel ARTE. It talked about the particularities of the language spoken by the Pirahãs, a ethnic group living on the banks of the Maici river in the Brazilian Amazonian Forest.

According to the documentary, the members of this group had little or no contact with the other ethnic groups living around them and were even less likely to have any contact with the members of the Brazilian national society who scared them.

The documentary describes the experience of Professor Daniel Everett of Berkeley University, California. Professor Everett lived with the Pirahãs ten years during the '70's and has been studying them for thirty years now. He made a revolutionary discovery which challenged the unique language system built by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the 1950's and whose theory had never being questioned before. I will try to summarize some of the particularities of the Pirahã language which lead to an academic polemic below:

The Pirahã language is spoken by about 300 individuals who presently compose this ethnic group; this language can be spoken, sung, whispered or whistled and one single word has many different meanings. It is the tone in which it is pronounced that gives the word meanings; the Pirahã language has no numbers, any calculation systems or vocabulary for colors, but it does have a name for each plant and animal of the forest in which they live. This allows the Pirahãs to describe the characteristics of each living species in detail. The language has no conjunctions at all. The Pirahãs have an extremely simple clan system, where there is no specific vocabulary for any relationships other than father, mother (the same word is used to designates the mother and the father) and brother or sister. And the most intriguing aspect leading to the polemic theory is: the Pirahã language has no past or future tense.

According to the Everett interpretation, the Pirahãs live totally in the present. They focus their minds and thinking on their immediate needs without regrets about the past or fears about the future. Which means that their language is no-recursive. This finding, seemingly insignificant, is actual a major discovery because it challenges Chomsky's theory on the universality of the grammar. According to Chomsky, grammar linguistic capacity is registered in the human genome, as the scientific component of the language, implied at the universality of repetition of the same rules everywhere called recursivity. Thereby, the absence of the recursive feature of the Pirahã language stands against the universality of the recursivity.

There is a symbiotic relationship between culture and nature in the Pirahã culture, dominated by the feeling of happiness, which characterizes the Pirahã values and way of life. The fact that culture not only drives the vocabulary but also the grammar of a language observed by Everett, denies the universality of the grammar of Noam Chomsky's theory milestone. As far as I could understand, this dispute is still not solved.

However, what fascinated me the most was not the academic controversy, but the outcome of Everett discoveries in his own life. It goes much further than its linguistic and controversial aspects. It reached this researcher much deeper inside. In fact, the missionary Daniel Everett who went to the Amazon Forest to evangelize the Pirahãs was converted by those who he was supposed to convert. The perceptible and contagious happiness present in this community made his mission pointless and obsolete: What could the idea of a "better world", implied in the Christian promise of salvation, look like to a people who is happy in the here and now? The former committed Christian Missionary became an atheistic. The sprayed sprinkler.

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