Thursday, August 18, 2005

Tales of the Piraha -- how flexible is man?

Just when one is inclined to think biology is everything, come stories of the Piraha:
George Monbiot � A Life With No Purpose

...Two days ago, I would have claimed that the demand for more was universal – that every society has or had its creation story and, as Joseph Campbell put it, “it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find”.(11) But yesterday I read a study by the anthropologist Daniel Everett of the language of the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Current Anthropology.(12) Its findings could scarcely be more disturbing, or more profound.

The Piraha, Everett reveals, possess “the most complex verbal morphology I am aware of [and] are some of the brightest, pleasantest, most fun-loving people that I know.” Yet they have no numbers of any kind, no terms for quantification (such as all, each, every, most and some), no colour terms and no perfect tense. They appear to have borrowed their pronouns from another language, having previously possessed none. They have no “individual or collective memory of more than two generations past”, no drawing or other art, no fiction and “no creation stories or myths.”

All this, Everett believes, can be explained by a single characteristic: “Piraha culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of [the speaker]”. What can be discussed, in other words, is what has been seen. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, in this realm at least, to exist. After struggling with one grammatical curiosity, he realised that the Piraha were “talking about liminality – situations in which an item goes in and out of the boundaries of their experience. [Their] excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe; they see this almost as travelling into another dimension.” The Piraha, still living, watch the sparrow flit in and out of the banqueting hall.(13)
Similar anthropologic stories have evaporated on closer inspection (the Inuit have only a handful of names for snow, Margaret Mead's cultures were very violent ...). It will be interesting to see if this one survives. Will our memes infect the Piraha? The course of that infection should be watched closely, even as it destroys all that they once were.

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