Whirr2005-10-13
Pirahã and Postmodernism
I was talking with a Cognitive Science professor (who shall remain nameless*) about the Pirahã yesterday. If you already know all about them, skip down to the interesting bit.

For those of you just joining me, the Pirahã are this fascinating Amazonian people. There are less than 400 of them, and they live in small groups of ten to twenty. According to Dan Everett and Peter Gordon (who will be coming to Northwestern next month!!) they have an incredibly bizarre culture. Everett has lived with them for years and years, and he says that they have have no non-immediate kinship terms (they have mother, father &c, but not uncle nor grandfather, I think). Even odder, they had no pronouns at all until they borrowed them from a neighboring language. Odder still? They have, apparently, no color words (except compounds, like "blood-like") and also no creation story or fiction. (That last bit really blows my mind--who doesn't wonder where we all came from?). They take fifteen minute to two hour-long naps throughout the day, and rarely sleep through the night.

The last thing about the Pirahã, the thing that gets people in a real tizzy, is that they have a word for "little bit" that they sometimes use to mean "one", a word for "bigger thing" that can be used as "two", and a word for "many", and that's it. No 3, 4, 5 or 6 &c.--no numbers at all. Also, they can't seem to learn how to count--they asked Everett to teach them (because they were afraid that they were getting ripped off when trading with people who could count, which seems like a reasonable fear) but they were unable to learn it.

Anyway, I was talking to this faculty member about the Pirahã, and I told him my theory that they are actually robots. No colors, no myths, no family--when they get done working at night they just turn themselves off until the next day. To my surprise I was not chided for my lack of cultural sensitivity. Instead, he replied, "Actually, I think a lot of people just turn themselves off."

He told me about another group of people (trying to avoid the word "tribe" here) in Africa (whose name I cannot recall). According to one theory, they used to be a farming culture, and they could weave and make all sorts of tools, &c. Then something happened and they became nomadic and, over time, they lost most of their technology. Apparently they pass scraps of cloth down from generation to generation because they can no longer fabricate it. They have even lost the ability to make fire--each family carries their own fire with them, wherever they go.

I find that whole prospect a little chilling and sad. This nameless faculty went on to say that these people really don't socialize at all. They don't talk to each other because they don't have much to say. Apparently they sing and whistle, but not as a means of interaction--more like birds do. He said there "weren't very jolly". Perhaps the struggle of living in the forest, carrying ones fire through the rain every day means that they aren't as interested in speculating about metaphysics. They sound a little like trauma victims, and I wonder if that's an appropriate way to describe them.

Which brings me to the other interesting point--post modernism. It used to be that the brave ethnographers would encounter savages in the wild and describe them in scientific papers. "The noble Negro of the coast, lacking our more civilized notions of Mozart and Bach, is therefore clad in only a grass skirt" and all that rubbish. It is, as he put it, "Not only offensive, but also extremely bad science."

One day anthropologists realized this, and my anonymous source claims that it basically shattered the field. I would find living under a tree in the rainforest and eating nuts and berries very traumatic, but for plenty of people (happy, normal people) that's the only way of life they can imagine. How can we hope to do science if we can make judgements? And how can we make judgements if we are required to discard our frame of reference entirely? It makes Heisenberg's principle seem an embarrassment of riches--modern anthropologists would love to know the speed or the location of the Pirahã, but as it is both notions are so grounded in our own beliefs about how life "should" be led that we can't really talk about either. Er... Well, you get what I mean, at least.

Anyway, he said that Anthro had basically torn itself apart over this question, and was "paralyzed" to this day. Scientists need to figure out what they can and cannot judge and describe. For example, and this was the Very Controversial Point that would get him in trouble, conceivably, it's taken as a given that all languages are equally expressive. One language may be all clicks and grunts, but is just as rich as any other. Or maybe it takes you several more words to describe in compared to on, but you have one very simple word for the distinction between this fits tightly and this fits loosely. Korean is like that.

What if that's not true, however? Maybe some languages, like the Pirahã's language or these people in Africa, simply can't express as much as we can. They live their lives in the same environment with the same people doing the same things all the time. Why do you need a word for color if you only have one robe, and it's brown? The idea of a "conceptually impoverished" language strongly invokes ideas of "Those poor, ignorant savages", and is very unwelcome in the scientific community. People like Peter Gordon and Dan Everett, who are not at all saying these things, but whose research could be interpreted as supporting this theory, are routinely pilloried at conferences. Fellow scientists all but throw vegetables at them as they describe their findings, but this faculty member seemed to think that this would change, sooner or later, and that people would have to admit that some language are simply more expressive than others.

This, by the way, is world's away from Jerry Fodor's belief that ever man, woman and child on the planet already has a mental concept of the carburetor(pdf).




*It seems a little silly to be "protecting the confidentiality of my sources" in a blog that only three people read, but I kinda think most blogs are silly, until someone gets sued. He asked me specifically not to quote him, so there you go.
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