Pirahã: The Language Without Abstraction, Fiction or Myth

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED July 27, 2011
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So Julie and I just finished recording an episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind titled “The Lying Game,” which on the heels of reading China Miéville’s “Embassytown” really got me thinking about the relationship between language and lying.

I mean it’s easy to overlook the power of lies. While truth-telling is mentally and physically a normal activity, lying forces us to fake typically subconscious inflections and movements. We construct facts to fabricate a false page of reality and then — via our incredible memory-prediction framework — project that false page of reality into the past or present. In doing so, we remake our own perceived reality and/or that of another.

R. Scott Bakker wrote that philosophy is the act of forcing language to conform to the world and that sorcery is the act of forcing the world to confirm to language. I’d extend that to argue lying is a form of sorcery: language altering the substance of a personal or collective world view.

But might a language and culture lack the linguistic ability to tell a lie (as opposed to mere deception)? This is one of the central ideas in “Embassytown,” which details the interactions between humans and an alien species with severe cognitive and linguistic limitations on its ability to lie. This led me to the language of the Amazonian Pirahã people. The New Yorker article “The Interpreter” provides a nice overall on the Pirahã language and culture (as well as its tireless chronicler Dan Everett), but here’s a quick run down of  more astounding attributes:

  • Based on a mere eight consonants and three vowels.
  • Complex array of tones, stresses and syllable lengths.
  • Speakers can drop vowels and consonants and use singing, humming and whistling instead.
  • Contains no numbers or system of counting.
  • Uses the simplest pronoun inventory known.
  • Lacks relative tenses.
  • Lacks any individual or collective memory more than two generations past
  • Lacks drawings and art.
  • Lack of color words.
  • Lacks creation myths and fiction.

That last one really caught me. A lack of fiction? A lack of myths? I have to admit, that’s a tricky one to comprehend. But here’s what it comes down to: These isolated people live in a hunter/gather world of the here and now. It is a world without abstraction. If they’re talking about something or paying it much heed, then that thing is right in front of them to see, smell, taste and touch. Thus there’s no, “Hey guys, I just saw five red flowers that must have been created by a god.” Instead, they merely say, “Hey guys, check out these flower.” There is no abstraction.

I find this quote from the New Yorker article particularly telling:

When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío — ‘gone out of experience.’ They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’

But do they lie to each other? As it turns out ,yes they do — in fact Everett reported that the Pirahã greatly enjoyed good-natured jokes and fibs at his expense. So even if the power of the lie becomes more prevalent in more-languaged cultures of abstraction, the Pirahã people remind us that the roots of human lie-crafting run deeper than our linguistic heritage.

Here’s an example of the Pirahã  language:

Here’s Dan Everett with more on the Pirahã  language:

Look for the lying episode in the weeks ahead! You can find the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast on iTunes, Zune and the RSS feed. And don’t forget the free HowStuffWorks App!

Image credit: “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Babel Fish by Rod Lord (used with permission)

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