Unlocking the secret sounds of language: Life without time or numbers

No one knew what the tiny Piraha tribe were humming to each other until one linguist really listened. What he heard is turning our understanding of language on its head

Deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, along the banks of the Mai ci river and shaded from the scorching sunlight by a verdant canopy of hanging branches, the linguist Dan Everett is going back to basics with his new class. "Um, dois, tres," he repeats in clearly enunciated Portuguese. "One, two, three." A row of blank faces greets his efforts. This was going to be harder than he had thought.

More than 25 years ago, Professor Everett, then a missionary and now an ethnologist at the University of Manchester, decided to try to teach members of the obscure Pirahã tribe how to count. He would not succeed. Instead, he found a world without numbers, without time, one where people appeared to hum and whistle rather than speak.

This isolated tribe of some 350 people in tiny villages in the depths of the Brazilian jungle could turn our understanding of language on its head and disprove the main work of one of the world's most celebrated intellectuals, Noam Chomsky.

From Professor Everett's first steps on Pirahã land in 1977, he knew the tribe was remarkable. Their language had no words capable of conveying numbers or of counting to even the most basic of figures. It could, he believed, be the world's only language without numbers. But he had to wait months before he could say for sure what made the Pirahã special, so indecipherable was their language, a kind of sing-song communication which has more in common with whistling and humming than the spoken word.

During one of his first visits, in the late 1970s, he began to understand what the tribespeople were saying. It was a rude awakening. Eavesdropping one night, desperately trying to piece together what little he knew of their words, he realised with a shock that the warriors, marching along the banks of the river, were planning nothing less than to murder him by moonlight.

Professor Everett ran back to the hut and locked his wife and three children inside. "I grabbed all their weapons, their bows and arrows," he says. It was an act of triumph; the outsider had caught them off guard and proved his worth. The tribe was so amazed he had actually worked out what they were saying to each other that they treated him with a cautious kind of respect. From then on, neither he nor his family had problems.

In 1980, after many entreaties, Profesor Everett set about trying to teach the Pirahã. For eight months, he tried to explain rudimentary arithmetic to the more eager men and women keen to learn the skills needed to trade at fair prices with other indigenous tribes who arrived looking for brazil nuts.

But after months of painstaking, often excruciatingly slow, evening classes, barely any of the Pirahã had managed to count to 10. Even one plus one had proved beyond them. "At first, they wanted to learn to read and write and count," he says. "But by the end, only a few could even manage to get from one to nine. I thought, 'This not working'."

Not only did the Pirahã use no numbers in their incredibly sparse language, they also appeared unable to even conceive of them. During the seven years Professor Everett spent with them, he never heard them use words such as "all," "every" and "more". There is one word, "hoi," which comes close to the number one, but it can also mean "small," or a small amount, such as two small fish as opposed to one large one.

Peter Gordon, a psycholinguist at New York's Columbia University who has also made the journey deep into the rainforest to explore the Pirahã's numerical skills, performed experiments with the tribespeople, with the bare materials the Pirahã were used to dealing with. He asked them to repeat patterns he created on the ground with batteries, or count how many brazil nuts he had in his hand. The results seemed to show the tribe simply did not understand the concept of numbers.

But the tribe's almost total lack of enumeration skills is just one of the Pirahã's many traits which has so fascinated linguists for two decades. The tribe has survived, culture intact, for centuries. "I tried to transcribe everything I heard," says Professor Everett, now a fluent Pirahã speaker. "I tried desperately to find structures I thought every language had but I couldn't find them. I was sure it was my inexperience in not being able to see them, but actually it was that they just weren't there."

He believes the Pirahã is the world's only people to have no distinct words for colours. They have no written language, and no collective memory going back further than two generations, meaning few can remember the names of all four grandparents. The members of the tribe, in villages along a 300-km stretch of the Maici, frequently starve themselves even when food is available.

The concept of decorative art is alien; even the simplest of drawings provokes intense frustration. They are also believed to be the world's only society to have no creation myth; asked how their ancestors came into existence they say, "The world is created" or "All things are made".

The Pirahã language is simple. For men, it can be pared down to just eight consonants and three vowels. Pirahã women have the smallest number of "speech sounds" in the world, with only seven consonants and three vowels. There is no perfect tense, no means of saying, for example, "I have eaten".

The Pirahã are a unique people living without time or numbers, without colours or a shared past. And, until recently, that was more than enough to unite anthropologists in shared fascination at this obscure society which seemed to trump everything they thought they knew about language, and humans in general.

Many, including Dr Gordon, interpreted the Pirahã's inability to learn to count as evidence for the theory that language shapes the way we think, that we are capable of creating thoughts only for which we already have words. In this theory, espoused initially by the Yale lecturer Benjamin Whorf in the 1930s, the Pirahã could not get to grips with numbers in another language, Portuguese, because their own language had no capacity for it.

"A people without terms for numbers doesn't develop the ability to determine exact numbers," Dr Gordon said in Science magazine. "The question is, is there any case where not having words for something doesn't allow you to think about it? I think this is a case for just that." But Professor Everett did not leave it there. "You could say these features of the language, these absences, are all coincidences. I tried to find a common thread to explain why the Pirahã were the way they were."

That factor, he found, was all around and yet its significance had never been noticed: the culture and unique way of life of the Pirahã. In a paper published last year, Professor Everett says this, not their language, prevents the Pirahã from counting.

Because of their culture's ingrained emphasis on referring only to immediate, personal experiences, the tribesmen do not have words for any abstract concept, from colour to memory and even to numbers. There is no past tense, he says, because everything exists for them in the present. When it can no longer be perceived, it ceases, to all intents, to exist. "In many ways, the Pirahã are the ultimate empiricists," Professor Everett says. "They demand evidence for everything."

Life, for the Pirahã, is about seizing the moment and taking pleasure here and now. "I suddenly noticed how excited they were whenever planes crossed the sky then disappeared. They just love sitting around watching people coming around the bend in the jungle. Whenever I came into the village then left, they were amazed."

The linguistic limitations of this "carpe diem" culture explain why the Pirahã have no desire to remember where they come from and why they tell no stories.

Other aspects of the culture have also had had an undeniable impact on the Pirahã language, Professor Everett says. They have a stubborn belief in their way of doing things that has arguably prevented them from doing things taken for granted in other countries. The Pirahã are capable of, for example, drawing a straight line when they want to make a stick figure to ward off evil spirits, but find writing the number one almost impossible.

Actively resistant to Western knowledge, they dropped out of Professor Everett's reading and writing classes when they realised he was trying to write down their language, which had remained purely verbal. "We don't write our language," they said. They told him the reason they had come to the classes was simply that it was fun to all get together in the evening, and Professor Everett made them popcorn.

It is easy to understand why the Pirahã have fascinated so many for so long. But what makes Professor Everett's theories so particularly stunning to the linguistic world is that they fundamentally contradict the theories that have dominated the sphere since the mid-20th century. The Pirahã language, Professor Everett claims, is the final nail in the coffin of Noam Chomsky's linguistic legacy, whose hugely influential theory of universal grammar dictates that the human mind has an innate capacity for language and that all languages share certain basic rules which enable children to understand the meaning of complicated syntax.

At its core is the concept of "recursion", defined as the ability to build complex ideas by using some thoughts as subparts of others, resulting in subordinate clauses. The Pirahã language has none of these features; every sentence stands alone and refers to a single event. Instead of saying "If it rains, I will not go", the tribe says: "Raining I go not."

Professor Everett insists the example of the Pirahã, because of the impact their peculiar culture has had upon their language and way of thinking, strikes a devastating blow to Chomskian theory. "Hypotheses such as universal grammar are inadequate to account for the Pirahã facts because they assume that language evolution has ceased to be shaped by the social life of the species." The Pirahã's grammar, he argues, comes from their culture, not from any pre-existing mental template.

Some anthropologists claim Professor Everett attributes too much importance to a vague concept of "culture". Others suggest that, through centuries of inbreeding, the Pirahã are simply intellectually inferior, an argument ProfessorEverett says is baseless. "These people know the names of every species in the jungle. They know the behaviour of all the animals," he says. "They know their environment better than any American knows his. They know so many things we don't, but because we know a few they don't, they are somehow less intelligent. It's ridiculous. As a matter of fact, they think I'm dumb because I have a habit of getting lost in the jungle."

Professor Everett's work is likely to be hotly debated. He will head back to Amazon this summer with a bevy of enthusiastic young PhD students to try to introduce others to the Pirahã and to prove his theories. A mark of how seriously the linguistic world takes his studies is that accompanying him will be W Tecumseh Fitch, one of the three architects of the original theory of universal grammar along with Chomsky and Dr Marc Hauser. The expert is keen to see whether the tribe does indeed refute their long-established theory.

Professor Everett took almost three decades to solve the riddle of the mysterious Pirahã language, and it will be years before anyone else knows them enough to properly challenge his findings. For now, it seems, their secrets are safe in the heart of the rainforest.

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