May 11, 2006

Good story, bad headline

Since we often criticize journalists here on Language Log, I try to praise good reporting on language-related issues when I can find it. And Rafaela von Bredow's May 3 story about Dan Everett and the Pirahã, in Spiegel Online, is very good. She explains the facts, the interpretations and the issues in a clear and readable way. Unfortunately, her work is spoiled by a seriously misleading headline and sub-head -- which I'm sure that she didn't write. As Nicole Stockdale explains, "[h]eadlines are written by copy editors, who battle deadlines to clean up or rewrite the reporter's copy, massage it, then crown it with a spiffy headline". When the editor doesn't understand the story, the result is what you'd expect.

In this case, some anonymous Spiegel editor gave Rafaela von Bredow's story the title "Living without Numbers or Time", and the sub-head "The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. . ." It's true that the Pirahã lack number words, but it's false that they "[live] without Time". It's apparently true that they have no subordinate clauses, but false that they "have no history [and] no descriptive words".

So three of the five cited facts about the language are wrong. That's 40% correct, a failing grade by any reasonable standard. Good stories are often spoiled by bad headlines -- isn't it past time to do something about this dysfunctional aspect of journalistic culture?

[Before going on, I should note that the body of Bredow's article is marred by a couple of unfortunate phrases, like

What the tribesmen didn't realize, however, was that Everett, a linguist, was eavesdropping, and he could already understand enough of the Amazon people's cacophonic singsong to make out the decisive words. [emphasis and dictionary links added]

The idea that the Pirahã communicate via "harsh and unpleasant monotonously rising and falling inflections" is a value judgment added by the reporter or her editor, and it ill behooves a speaker of the much-maligned German language to sling around words like cacophonic. However, there are only few issues of this sort in the body of the article, and in my opinion they don't spoil its generally clear and insightful presentation of the basic facts and issues.]

For those interested in the aspects of Pirahã treated in the headline and subhead, the stuff about numbers is well covered in the links given here. As for subordinate clauses, Everett does argue that Pirahã lacks them, as has also been claimed for several other human languages. (Here's a sketch of what English might be like if it worked that way.)

With respect to time and descriptive words, I'll quote a few relevant passages from Daniel L. Everett, "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language", Current Anthropology, Volume 46, Number 4, August-October 2005 (a preprint is available for those without access to a subscription).

Dan's discussion of time and tense does suggest that something a bit unusual might be going on:

I have argued elsewhere (1993) that Pirahã has no perfect tense and have provided a means for accounting for this fact formally within the neo-Reichenbachian tense model of Hornstein (1990). This is an argument about the semantics of Pirahã tense, not merely the morphosyntax of tense representation. In other words, the claim is that there is no way to get a perfect tense meaning in Pirahã, not merely an absence of a formal marker for it. Pirahã has two tenselike morphemes, -a `remote' and -i `proximate'. These are used for either past or present events and serve primarily to mark whether an event is in the immediate control or experience of the speaker ("proximate") or not ("remote").

     In fact, Pirahã has very few words for time. The complete list is as follows: 'ahoapió 'another day' (lit. 'other at fire'), pi'í `now', so'óá 'already' (lit. 'time-wear'), hoa `day' (lit. `fire'), ahoái 'night' (lit. 'be at fire'), piiáiso 'low water' (lit. 'water skinny temporal'), piibigaíso 'high water' (lit. 'water thick temporal'), kahai'aíi 'ogiíso 'full moon' (lit. 'moon big temporal'), hisó 'during the day' (lit. 'in sun'), hisóogiái 'noon' (lit. `in sun big be'), hibigíbagá'áiso 'sunset/sunrise' (lit. 'he touch comes be temporal'), 'ahoakohoaihio 'early morning, before sunrise' (lit. 'at fire inside eat go').

Specifically, Dan thinks that this is a one of many linguistic symptoms of a general pattern, in which

Pirahã culture constrains communication to nonabstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors.

There's plenty of room for argument here about whether "nonabstract" is a fair characterization of morphemes that mean things like "remote" vs. "proximate", "other", "temporal" and so on. With respect to talk about tense and time, Dan argues that

[I]n the context of the present exploration of culture-grammar interactions in Pirahã, it is possible to situate the semantics of Pirahã tense more perspicaciously by seeing the absence of precise temporal reference and relative tenses as one further example of the cultural constraint on grammar and living. This would follow because precise temporal reference and relative tenses quantify and make reference to events outside of immediate experience and cannot, as can all Pirahã time words, be binarily classified as "in experience" and "out of experience."

In any case, there's no support for the view that the Pirahã "[live] without time". As one more nail in the coffin of this notion, I'll quote one of the example sentences from Everett 2005:

kohoai -kabáob -áo ti 'ahoai -soog -abagaí
eat -finish -temporal I you speak -desiderative -frustrated_initiation
"When [I] finish eating, I want to speak to you."

By the way, you might think that this example includes a subordinate clause, but Dan says "no":

There is almost always a detectable pause between the temporal clause and the "main clause." Such clauses may look embedded from the English translation, but I see no evidence for such an analysis. Perhaps a better translation would be "I finish eating, I speak to you."

What about the claim that the Pirahã have "no descriptive words"? The only part of the the Spiegel article that might have given rise to this preposterous claim is the sentence

Apparently colors aren't very important to the Pirahãs, either -- they don't describe any of them in their language.

Dan Everett does argue that the Pirahã have no basic color terms (though Paul Kay, one of the commentators on the Current Anthropology article, is not convinced). I'm not sure what it would mean for a language have "no descriptive words", but a couple of additional Pirahã examples should establish that it's not true in this case:

bii -o3pai2 ai3
blood -dirty/opaque be/do
"blood is dirty"


kahaí kai -sai hi ob -áa'áí
arrow make -nominative he see -attractive
"He knows how to make arrows well."
(lit. "He sees attractively arrow-making.")

[Update: Julia Hockenmaier raises a possibility that should have occurred to me -- the headline might have been botched in translation. She points out that the headline and subhead in the German version read:

LINGUISTIK: Leben ohne Zahl und Zeit
Das Volk der Pirahã kennt keine Vergangenheit, keine Farbwörter, keine Nebensätze. Das macht seine Sprache zur merkwürdigsten der Welt - und zum Zankapfel der Linguisten.

and comments:

'Zeit' in German means both tense and time, so I think this is just a translation error. Similarly, 'Vergangenheit' means either 'past' or 'past tense' (especially in this list of language-related terms), but not 'history' (that would be'Geschichte'). And the original doesn't say 'descriptive terms', but 'color words'.

She also asks

By the way, how is this absence of tense different from, say, Chinese? It really doesn't seem that unusual to me.

As I understand Dan's argument, he's claiming that the Pirahã's time-related morphology is consistent with their general cultural pattern, not that it's unique. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 11, 2006 08:20 PM