Thinking in the Pirahã Language

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is both the personal journey of Daniel Everett from devoted Christian missionary to a humbled atheist as well as the tale of the Pirahã people and their remarkable language. This is probably the only book about linguistics that wouldn’t put a general audience to sleep — snakes notwithstanding.

The Pirahã language is completely unlike any other known language and doesn’t neatly fit Chomsky’s universal grammar. The main feature Everett identified is the primacy of immediate experience; the Pirahã simply don’t deal in abstractions. This means that pleasantries such as ‘please’ and ‘hello’ are absent from the language. There are no numbers. At all. You can’t have two sticks because two is an abstraction — there are two different objects, to call them two of the same class of object is an abstraction that the Pirahã shun.

Information can only be relayed first hand or at most from a witness that all parties to the conversation know. This put a damper on Everett’s attempts to translate the New Testament. The Pirahã were simply baffled at the concept of Jesus whom Everett had never seen. They have no creation myth, no belief in an afterlife. They are the only know culture to just get on with living.

These traits are interwoven into the fabric of the language and culture. Contemporary Pirahã can’t express these abstractions, although there are features of the language that confound outsiders. The length of words and their tonality make the language comprehensible when whistled — a boon to hunting. The language is hardly ‘primitive’ or ‘simplistic’. Everett is about the only outsider to have mastered it.

As a Buddhist, the primacy of immediate experience is fascinating. Meditation techniques draw the practitioner away from habitual fantasies into the immediate present. Everett reports that many of the benefits of meditation abound among the Pirahã — they are indefatigably happy, genuine and accepting of the pain and trauma that life inevitably brings.

This is not to idealize the principle of the immediacy of experience. The Pirahã seemed both unwilling and unable to learn new skills, despite Everett’s best efforts to teach them to build canoes and use numbers when trading with Brazilians. Nonetheless, it’s worth questioning how much abstraction we need in our daily lives. Staying in the present with the ability to hop into abstract thinking when necessary would be a reasonable lesson to take from the Pirahã.

Ultimately this book will leave you with more questions than answers. Are the Pirahã some exception we’d be better off ignoring? How much are language and culture really tied together? How much does your native language shape how you see the world? Is it possible to transcend the limits that your language imposes on you?

These questions go well beyond linguistic trivia — hop onto any programming forum, ask what programming language is the best for whatever specific task and grab some popcorn. Exploring the limits of language is important; in the end, our languages limit just how we can conceptualize the solutions to humanity’s problems.