The Piraha

There is a book called ‘Don’t sleep, there are snakes’ by Daniel Everett. It is about a Christian Missionary’s 3 decade long journey with the Piraha (pronounced ‘Pidahan’) people of the Amazon basin. Everett travelled there in 1977 in order to convert the people there to Christianity, in his mind, to save them from the eternal firey torments of hell. With his family in tow he lived on and off with the Piraha for 30 years and what turned out as his mission to convert them turned into their conversion of him. In the process Everett developed the field of psycholinguistics away from Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar.

Everett went to the Piraha as part of the SIL Christian Mission and, as such, did not go to preach the gospel to them but rather to learn their language (not spoken by any Westerner) and to translate the Bible into it, thus allowing them to read the Holy scripture for themselves and be converted. To this end he had to learn a language for which there was no dictionary and no intermediating ground, i.e. he could not converse with them in, say, Brazilian or Spanish, as they did not speak it, therefore he could only learn their language by learning one word at a time and testing, by trial and error, if he had got it correct. He was, in effect, learning the language blind. There were many instances of him thinking he had understood what a word meant and then later realising he had got the meaning wrong, or discovered that there were other meanings for the word which were confusing him.

What Everett found was that the Piraha language is exceptionally unusual. They adhere to what Everett observed and deduced to be the ‘immediacy of experience’ principle. This dictates that Piraha people will very rarely speak about, or refer to anything, unless it has been experienced by them or by someone else they know directly. They will not, for instance, talk about the wondrous possibilities of what it might be like to sit in a crazy flying machine as this is something that hasn’t been conceived or made by them or those they know directly. They will talk about events of the past day or two and they will talk about their nightime dreams as if they were the same as events that occurred in the waking world. They do not talk about ‘left’ and ‘right’ but rather by positioning of you in relation to things around you. For example if you wanted to know if it was the left or right path to get home they might say ‘the path that flows downstream with the river’. Theirs is a world and a reality imbedded in the now and in the world directly around them, not in a world of what if’s and imagined scenarios such as ours.

The Piraha language lacks ‘recursion’ which is the underlying unifier in Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. This theory, broadly speaking, suggests that all humans are built with the innate ability of grammar, and recursion is the part of grammar that allows us to make relative clauses, to relate one phrase directly to another and so be able to convey lots of information in short amounts of coding, e.g. ‘There was a big man called Bill who went to the market where he ate fish.’ In this sentence you don’t have to keep repeating ‘a big man called Bill’ all the time such as, ‘There was a big man called Bill, the big man called Bill went to the market, the big man called Bill ate fish in the market’. Recursion helps us, suggests Universal Grammar, to create a language unique to humans, a language not present anywhere else in the animal kingdom. But, Pirahan language does not involve recursion. It is a huge anomally.

The thing I find so interesting about the book and Everett’s views and findings are that he claims that the Piraha are by far and away the happiest people he has ever met. Their perception of space and time is directly influenced by their language, by the way they interpret the space around them into symbols, and because of this they are often thinking only in the immediate present, they do not worry about the future or dwell on the far past, they are contented in the here and now.

In his missionary duties Everett exasperatedly tells one of the Piraha men in a village about Jesus, about how Jesus saved Everett and all the people on earth from all the pains of damnation. The Piraha is very excited and says that surely this man is amazing and that he would love to learn form him. Everett is overjoyed, a breakthrough, he thinks.

‘When can I meet this Jesus of whom you speak?’ asked the Piraha man.

‘Well you can’t, he died two thousand years ago’ is Everett’s reply.

The Piraha looks somewhat bemused and asks how on earth could Everett claim to be saved by a man who has been dead for two thousand years. Logic, it would seem, is ever present in the Amazon basin.

A final point that struck me in the book was this phrase: “The Pirahas have no way of knowing that Westerners expect to live nearly twice as long as they do. And we not only expect to live longer, we consider it our right to do so”.

If you don’t expect to live so long, perhaps you spend your time here much more gratefully.


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