September 07, 2004

No abstract concepts for them

Yes, the Pirahã, most recently reported on in Language Log here and here. The manglings and exaggerations of the story have now reached the endpoint: the claim that the Pirahã have no abstract concepts at all.

And the claim appears on sci.lang, a newsgroup intended for the discussion of language from a scientific point of view. Shame, shame. The exchange:

From: Christopher Koppler

Re: languages in Russia

Date: Thu Sep 02 22:42:23 PDT 2004

On Thu, 02 Sep 2004 19:12:51 -0400, Keith GOERINGER wrote:

In article <>, (Xenia) wrote:

So what is the basis for your confidence? Any dipolmat will tell you notorious stories how hard it is to write a treaty in Kazakh, because the nomadic language lacks any abstract concepts, let alone terms of international law.

No language springs from the lips of its speakers fully formed -- it evolves over time. And to say that a language "lacks any abstract concepts" is an absolute -- and it is one that is absolutely false, to boot.

To mingle with another recent thread here, the only language known that really seems to lack any abstract concepts (number, color, anything outside of personal experience) is the language of the Amazonian Pirahã.

Number and color are outside of personal experience? What about shape and size? Generation? Kin relationship? Goodness? (Feel free to extend this list.) And, no, Peter Gordon and Dan Everett shouldn't feel obliged to respond.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 7, 2004 01:32 PM