Will This Amazonian Tribe Upend Chomskyan Linguistics?

by David
A Piraha Home
A typical Piraha house. High-resolution photo available on Dan Everett’s site.

Meet the language of the Piraha tribe in the Amazon, a melodic language that to the untrained ear sounds like bird songs and is hardly discernible as human speech.

Some more facts:

  • 8 consonant sounds (But women only use 7)
  • 3 vowel sounds
  • One of the simplest language sound systems known
  • 3 Pronouns (And these appear to be borrowed from a neighboring tribe)
  • No perfect tense
  • No past tense
  • No numbers
  • No fixed color words
  • No quanification words
  • No evidence of recursion (subordinate clauses)
  • The language can be whistled, hummed or sung

The last point is where there’s a problem with Noam Chomsky’s theories. Recursion is the idea that phrases can be embedded inside other phrases, and is the cornerstone of Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar.

Click here to hear some sample speech from the Piraha tribe. These are two boys “singing” about the day’s events.

The study of this tribe has also sparked some psycholinguistic controversy. The Piraha people don’t use or grasp the concept of numbers, and have not number words in the their language. Some researchers propose that it’s impossible to understand a concept that you can’t describe in your language.

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