Daniel L. Everett, professor of phonetics and phonology at the University of Manchester in England, spent seven years with the Pirah (pronounced pee-ra-HA), a hunter-gatherer tribe of 200 who live in groups of 10 or 20 along the Maici River in the Lowland Amazon area of Brazil. These people call themselves Hiaitiihi: those who stand straight. Everett studied their culture and language--and stumbled on an oddity: the Pirah have no numbers or clear words for quantities, have no differentiated words for familial relationships, and only a few to describe time. They do not read or write, do not talk about abstract subjects, do not use complex sentences and do not learn Portuguese, even though they are in constant contact with the outside world.
Everetts colleague Peter Gordon, professor of speech and language pathology at Columbia University, also carried out speech tests in the Pirah villages. He found the members had a quantification system with terms for one, two and many. He has argued that the Pirah have only a few numerical words because they cannot count higher. Everett takes a very different view, which he outlined during an interview with Annette Lessmoellmann.
Annette Lessmoellmann: How does a Pirah mother count her children?
Daniel Everett: She would never say, I have five children. But she does not need to do so, either. After all, she knows her offspring by name and face. If she wants to take them somewhere, she always looks them over first. She does not have to count to do so. If one mother has eight children, and another has just one, then they would say something like this: I have a lot of children, and I have a small quantity.
AL: But aren't numbers awfully practical?
DE: The Pirah don't need them. When everyone jumps into the canoes, they don't say: We still have space for three people here. Instead they say something when the canoe is so full it might sink. When they make soup, they say: You fish in instead of declaring the quantity in advance, such as You two fish in. They simply yell, Stop, when it's enough.
AL: Does that mean the Pirah do not even have the words one and two, as your colleague Peter Gordon states?
DE: Yes, that's right. I discovered that the word that apparently meant one really meant small. They would use it for a baby, for example, not because there was one baby but because it was small. The word I had long believed to mean two they used for bigger kids, too. These concepts reflect relative sizes. They are not precise, because their meaning is clear from the context. And the word that I thought might mean many turned out to be an expression for collecting or grouping and thus did not mean a quantity. The Pirah do not have precise expressions like 10.
AL: How did the discrepancies between your findings and Gordon's come about?
DE: In fact, we agree. The Pirah have no counting words and don't count. But Gordon should have chosen other research methods. He worked with [asking villagers to count] AA batteries and plastic sticks during his tests. Those are not Pirah objects, and for such a self-sufficient culture, that was fatal. The big difference between Gordon and me, though, is the argument over why the Pirah have no counting words and cannot count. He says they are cognitively incapable of counting.
AL: Many researchers would have drawn that conclusion. It is after all a classical belief in linguistics that common cognitive tasks are closely connected to language.
DE: Of course. People such as linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University believe in an inborn language ability that grows out of our innate intelligence.
In this sense, Gordon's findings point in the opposite direction, namely, toward the hypothesis enunciated by anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf, in which one's mother tongue influences thinking. In this case, it means that the Pirah don't know any counting words; therefore, they cannot think in numbers. All these approaches have one thing in common, in that they are based on a very close connection between language and cognition. These hypotheses completely ignore, however, what roles other influences such as culture might play.
AL: Could you explain such an influence with an example?
DE: When we ask Pirah to string beads--and this is a very typical activity for them--the adults are not able to count the beads from one to nine. But we did determine that children learned the numbers.
AL: This means that they are cognitively capable?
DE: Exactly. They are also interested in numbers. Once the adults asked me to give them counting lessons. They wanted to understand what this silly money that the Brazilian traders were constantly offering them was all about. For two months we tried to teach them the most basic rudiments, without success. They had not learned a single number, not to mention the fact that they could not write them. Perhaps they could repeat the numbers, but they never used them in daily life.
AL: But doesn't that in fact confirm that the Pirah are cognitively incapable of counting?
DE: No. Many languages that are historically comparable to the Pirah's also lacked counting words for a long time. For example, many Australian languages borrowed counting words from other languages. The people's culture changed and their need for counting words grew, so they borrowed some. That would not have been possible if the nonexistence of counting concepts meant that these people were not, in principle, able to count.
I believe, to the contrary, that the Pirah do not want to count! It is exactly the same with learning Brazilian Portuguese. The Pirah have a lot of contact with the outside world, but they refuse to learn the national language. A girl had to spend a long time being treated in a hospital in the city. When she returned, I noticed that she could now speak Portuguese well. But after a little time back in the village, she did not use it at all anymore. The Pirah have made it a matter of principle not to learn foreign languages. It is true they are constantly asking, What is this called, what is that, in Portuguese? But it is mostly a game. They could have learned these words long since, but they don't want to. It is the same with counting. I observed that a boy, about 11 years old, who had learned to count, was shunned by the others.
AL: So you are saying the lack of counting words among the Pirah should be considered in connection with the other special characteristics of their language?
DE: Precisely. When I started out working among the Pirah, I searched in vain to find stories that had been passed down. They don't have any. And they never begin a story with once upon a time and do not talk about the adventures of an event. I asked them: What was it like a long time ago, before there were any Pirah? They did not understand me; there have always been Pirah.
AL: So the Pirah only talk about concrete things?
DE: In a certain sense, yes. I call this the principle of direct experience. It is not true that they only talk about things that are going on around them right now. A conversation with someone who had recently died belongs to direct experience: the person is certainly not there anymore, but one remembers the conversation. They also certainly know tomorrow and yesterday. But they don't have words for them. There is only one word, meaning the other day. Whether it is in the past or the future is determined by context. If I want to tell them when I will be leaving, I show them, at the riverbank, how high the water will be then. They understand immediately.
AL: Your results show that cultural variety can be reflected not just in words but also in sentence construction. You maintain that Pirah permits no embedding, meaning no subordinate clauses. But that is a hallmark of human language.
DE: Linguistic complexity depends on which developmental phase a culture finds itself in. Languages develop, and with this their complexity, meaning the degree of nesting. Apparently the Pirah don't possess this from birth. Language, thus, has less to do directly with our biologically determined cognitive abilities than Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and others would like to have it.