Living without numbers or time

From Spiegel Online: Living without Numbers or Time.

The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world — and also one of the most hotly debated by linguists.

During one of his first visits to Brazil’s Pirahãs, members of the tribe wanted to kill Daniel Everett. At that point, he wasn’t even a “bagiai” (friend) yet and a travelling salesman — who felt Everett had conned him — had promised the natives a lot of whiskey for the murder. In the gloom of midnight, the Pirahã warriors huddled along the banks of the Maici and planned their attack.

What the tribesmen didn’t realize, however, was that Everett, a linguist, was eavesdropping, and he could already understand enough of the Amazon people’s cacophonic singsong to make out the decisive words.

"I locked my wife and our three children in the reasonably safe shed of our hut and immediately went to the men," Everett recalls. "In one move, I snatched up all of their bows and arrows, went back to the hut and locked them up." He had not only disarmed the Pirahãs — he had also startled them — and they let him live. The next day, the family left without any trouble.

But the language of the forest dwellers, which Everett describes as "tremendously difficult to learn," so fascinated the researcher and his wife that they soon returned. Since 1977, the British ethnologist at the University of Manchester spent a total of seven years living with the Pirahãs — and he’s committed his career to researching their puzzling language. Indeed, he was long so uncertain about what he was actually hearing while living among the Pirahãs that he waited nearly three decades before publishing his findings. "I simply didn’t trust myself." [continue]

Thanks to my husband for pointing out this story.

2 thoughts on “Living without numbers or time

  1. NPR’s Weekend Edition had an interview with Everett this past weekend, on how his experience with the Pirahã caused him to lose his Christian faith, among other things. Listen to it here. No mention of Fitch’s trip, but Everett has recently published a response to some of his critics, which I’ve yet to read.

  2. Some may not know that W. Tecumseh Fitch had an expedition there last summer… silly me… thinking everyone’s inside my head.

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