The Pirahã tribe in the heart of the Amazon numbers only 360, spread in small groups over 300 miles. An exceptionally cheerful people, they live with a focus on immediacy, empiricism, and physical rigor that has shaped their unique language, claims linguist Daniel Everett.
The Pirahã language has no numbers or concept of counting (only terms for "relatively small" and "relatively large"); no kinship terms beyond immediate children and parents; no "left" and "right" (only "upriver" and "downriver"); no named distinction of past and future (only near time and far time); no creation stories or myths; and—-most important for linguists—-no recursion.
A recursive sentence like "The boy who was fishing owned the dog" does not occur in the Pirahã language. They would say, "The boy was fishing" and "The boy owned the dog." The eminent linguist Noam Chomsky has declared that recursion is an essential part of human language and is innate. Chomsky’s former student Everett says that the Pirahã language proves otherwise. The resultant controversy is profound.
The Pirahã language is the simplest in the world. Speaking it and singing it are the same, and it can be hummed or even whistled, yet it can convey enormous richness. Among other things, the wide variety of verb forms are used to account for the directness of evidence for a statement. Everett originally went to the Pirahã in 1977 as a Christian missionary. They challenged him to provide evidence for the existence of Jesus, and lost interest when he couldn’t. Eventually so did he. The Pirahã made him an atheist.
And the through him the Pirahã revolutionized how we think about language.
Some 40 percent of the world’s 6,912 known languages are endangered, says Everett, and that endangers science. When we lose a language, we lose a whole way of life, a whole set of solutions to problems, a whole classification system and body of knowledge about the natural world, a whole calendar system, a whole complex of myths, folktales, and songs.
Everett spelled out what it takes to preserve a living language that is endangered. The land where the speakers live must be preserved, and their health should be protected. The language needs to be documented in detail. And you could do worse than make a donation to the Foundation for Endangered Languages.