April 6, 2024

Pirahã language: Daniel Everett an why language is a cultural invention (2017)

by Mateusz Wiącek

Daniel Everett is a linguist who is best known for his studies of language in the Amazon and author of the book How Language Began. He began as a missionary and then became a linguist. He spent a lot of time learning and investigating the  Pirahã people in the Amazonian jungle of Brazil. There are about 750 of them today.

And Pirahã language is something special.

The Pirahã language is not related to any other known living language. It has no past or future tense, no numbers or method of counting, and no names for colors. Most crucially, it also doesn’t have recursion – the feature that was thought to exist in all of human language, suggesting a genetic component of language.

Their language just functions differently. 

One of their ways to say “good night” is “don’t sleep, there are snakes.” They always assume that if you tell them a story, you have actually seen it. It just didn’t make sense to them why Everett was reading biblical stories to them, if he had not experienced them himself.

The lesson is that language is not something mysterious that is outside the bounds of natural selection, or just popped into being through some mutated gene. Language is a human invention to solve a human problem.

According to Everett, language is not fundamentally different from other mental capacities. There is no special “language instinct” or “universal grammar”. 

Language is instead a culturally acquired invention.

Leave a Reply