Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Language, grammar and culture: The Pirahã of the Amazon

In this short post from last year, which linked to the work of Lera Boroditsky, we saw that there might be a nontrivial link between the language and worldview. That is, the words we use are not mere words, they influence how we think. The corollary is that if we did not know certain words or phrases -- and this routinely happens as words in one language are often missing in another -- we might look at the world very differently. That is precisely what this essay in the New Yorker about the Pirahã, an isolated Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe, seems to suggest.

The tribe is different in that they are tremendously resistant to cultural change. Their complex language plays a role in this stubbornness. It is difficult to learn, and plenty of aspects we take for granted in the other languages are missing; it defies -- or may defy: it hasn't been proved fully yet -- some well accepted principles put forth by Noam Chomsky and his colleagues that were thought to apply universally. And the language of the Pirahã drives their culture, which the linguist Everett thinks is obsessively dedicated to empirical reality and has no place for abstraction. To understand, consider this extract:

2 comments:

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