Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha

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  • Topic: Linguistics, Daniel Everett, Pirahã language
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C u r r e n t A n t h r o p o l o g y Volume 46, Number 4, August–October 2005 2005 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2005/4604-0006$10.00

Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha ˜
Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language by Daniel L. Everett

It does not seem likely . . . that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of the culture, but not in so far as a certain state of the culture is conditioned by the morphological traits of the language. f r a n s b o a s , 1911 In the early days of American descriptive linguistics, language was seen as an emergent property of human culture and psychology.1 Except for small pockets of researchers here and there, for various reasons both so-called formal and functional linguistics abandoned the investigation of culture-language connections.2 In recent years there has been a welcome revival of interest in the influence of language on culture and cognition, especially in more sophisticated investigations of the linguistic-relativity/determinism hypothesis (e.g., Lucy 1. I thank the Piraha for their friendship and help for more than ˜ half of my life. Since 1977 the people have taught me about their language and way of understanding the world. I have lived for over six years in Piraha villages and have visited the people every year ˜ since 1977. I speak the language well and can say anything I need to say in it, subject to the kinds of limitations discussed in this paper. I have not published on Piraha culture per se, but I have ˜ observed it closely for all of these years and have discussed most of my observations, including those reported on here, with the Piraha themselves. My wife, Keren, is the only non-Piraha to have ˜ ˜ lived longer among the Piraha than I. She has offered invaluable ˜ help, strong criticism, and inspiration in my studies of the Piraha ˜ language over the years. Peter Gordon’s enthusiasm for studying Piraha counting experimentally has challenged me to consider the ˜ absence of Piraha numerals in a wider cultural and linguistic con˜ text. I thank David Gil of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for organizing the “Numerals” conference there (March 28 and 29, 2004) and the Institute’s Linguistics Department for offering me ideal circumstances in which to rough out the bulk of this paper. I also thank (in no particular order) Ray Jackendoff, Lila Gleitman, Timothy Feist, Bill Poser, Nigel Vincent, Keren Everett, Arlo Heinrichs, Steve Sheldon, Pattie Epps, Tony Woodbury, Brent Berlin, Tom Headland, Terry Kaufman, Grev Corbett, Peter Gordon, Sally Thomason, Alec Marantz, Donca Steriade, Craige Roberts, Mary Beckman, Peter Culicover, and Iris Berent for comments of varying detail on this paper and Paul Kay for asking challenging questions about my statements on color terms that helped me sharpen my thinking about this enormously. Tom Headland deserves special mention for giving me detailed help on how to make my ethnographic summary more intelligible to anthropologists. This paper supersedes any other published or unpublished statement by me on those aspects of Piraha grammar here ad˜ dressed. No one should draw the conclusion from this paper that the Piraha language is in any way “primitive.” It has the most ˜ complex verbal morphology I am aware of and a strikingly complex prosodic system. The Piraha are some of the brightest, pleasantest, ˜ most fun-loving people that I know. The absence of formal fiction, myths, etc., does not mean that they do not or cannot joke or lie, both of which they particularly enjoy doing at my expense, always good-naturedly. Questioning Piraha’s implications for the design ˜ features of human language is not at all equivalent to questioning their intelligence or the richness of their cultural experience...
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