Piraha Language

Xatufan   Monday, December 20, 2004, 00:13 GMT
There's a strange language in Brazil called the Piraha language. It's weird because:

- You have a finite complexity of a sentence. You cannot say "Mary's cousin's son".

- The language doesn't have numbers. In fact, Piraha speakers don't know how to count or add! If you try to teach them, they can't do it! Maybe the language influenced in other areas of the brain. I wonder... (There's a hypotesis called Sapir-Whorf that talks about this).

- There is also a disputed claim that Piraha lacks any colour terminology!

- Men use 10 phonemes and women 9. This is strange not only because men and women use different phonemes, but also there's no language in the world that has less phonemes! And only three vowels: a, i, o (although this not unique, as Quecha has only three too: a, i, u).

- There are only 150 people who speak it!
Brennus   Monday, December 20, 2004, 06:37 GMT
Dear Xatufan,

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I have never heard of Piraha before even though I know that most languages in this area belong to a supergroup called Pano-Carib or Macro-Carib which once extendied as far north as Belize (British Honduras) and Puerto Rico and as far south as the Pampas of Argentina.

There is a fair amount of information about it on Google. Below is information from some of the more popular sites like Wikipedia and Language Hat.


Xatufan   Tuesday, December 21, 2004, 00:55 GMT
In fact, Brennus, I got the information from the Wikipedia. I like to write in the Spanish wikipedia.
Someone   Tuesday, December 21, 2004, 01:46 GMT
What I find most interesting about the Piraha is that they have no creation myths, and claim that everything has always been as it is.
Brennus   Tuesday, December 21, 2004, 05:35 GMT


Re: "I got the information from the Wikipedia". That's all right Xatufan. Wikipedia is a good place to start on any subject that you don't know anything about and I for one, didn't know anything about Piraha.


Some atheists I've known also believe that the universe has always existed and has no creator or creation although I'm not saying that the Piraha are atheists; they are probably in the spiritualist or animist category of religion. Then, there is another school of atheism that does support the idea of a creation albeit something more like the Big Bang theory rather than what the Book of Genesis says.
Someone   Tuesday, December 21, 2004, 07:01 GMT
Brennus: The Piraha believe in a "spirit realm" that they claim to have seen themselves, and have words for describing spirits; so they're definitely not atheists. You can read about it at this page (I found it in the Wikipedia article). http://lings.ln.man.ac.uk/Info/staff/DE/cultgram.pdf

Anyway, the findings of the linguists about the counting capabilities of the Piraha are also very interesting. If the Piraha really are incapable of learning to count, does that mean that there is a critical period for learning counting? I'm sure that many people are familiar with the fact that people are incapable of learning their first language beyond a certain age. The same could possibly be true for counting if the Piraha were really unable to learn how to count. It's possible that the Piraha really were capable of learning to count, but chose not to for some reason, however.
Brennus   Tuesday, December 21, 2004, 08:24 GMT

Dear Someone:

Re: " if the Piraha were really unable to learn how to count. It's possible that the Piraha really were capable of learning to count, but chose not to for some reason, however."

You're theory could be true. For instance, some anthropologists believe that the Australian aborigines once had bow & arrow technology but lost it by relying on the boomerang for hunting. The reason being that the bow & arrow was developed in Africa about 150,00 years ago which was long before the ancestors of the Australian natives arrived in Australia c. 30,000 years ago.

I have heard of many very *primitive peoples who cannot count beyond (3) three but none that couldn't count at all. So, what you say about the Piraha is indeed interesting.

*I would also like to add that "primitive" does not necessarily mean "bad". Too many pseudo-sophisticated people these days want to equate it with "bad" and that isn't always the case.
Someone   Tuesday, December 21, 2004, 19:20 GMT
The number 3 seems to be significant in counting. I read that humans have an innate ability to recognize the number of items in a group where the number of items is three or less (I may have read this in that article). This would make a lot of sense given the grammatical characteristics of many human languages. For example, English has "both" to indicate duality, seperating "two" from higher numbers. Spanish has ambos (from Latin ambo) which has has the same function. Semetic languages (such as Hebrew and Arabic) usually have verb conjugations for singular, dual, and multiple, although the "dual" conjugations have fallen out of use in at least some of the languages. Chinese characters also show that "three" has a special place. u•iv (japanese kun reading "shina") means "articles". The three boxes signify a large number of boxes rather than merely three (I encoded the character in Japanese Shift-JIS).
Jordi   Wednesday, December 22, 2004, 05:44 GMT
Don't forget the good old English saying: two's company, three's a crowd.