April 23, 2007

Comments on "The Interpreter"

[Guest post by Vera da Silva Sinha and Chris Sinha]

Below is a letter sent to The New Yorker in response to an article entitled “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto which appeared in The New Yorker of April 16 2007. The article is a lengthy and interesting account of Dan Everett's work on the Pirahã language of Amazonia. Our letter draws on our own visit to the Pirahã and on our fieldwork with another Amazonian indigenous community. We do not know if, our how much of, the letter will be published, but we think readers of this site might be interested. The work on time in Amondawa discussed below is reported in an article which will imminently be submitted for publication.

We are an anthropologist and a psychologist who visited the Pirahã in January 2006, at the behest of FUNAI (the Brazilian Indian Agency) and the municipality of Humaitá, in the State of Amazonas (Brazil). We were asked to do so because (we were informed) the Pirahã community had requested the provision of schooling. Our visit (by boat) took place in the company of FUNAI, FUNASA (health agency) and municipal officials, and an interpreter. The request for our visit was issued because one of us (Vera) has experience of establishing an indigenous language school in another Amazonian community, the Amondawa, who speak a Tupi Kawahib language unrelated to Pirahã. We communicated with Dan Everett about our visit, and during our stay we experienced at first hand the cultural patterns described by John Colapinto, and by Everett in his article in Current Anthropology. Not having knowledge of the Pirahã language, and not being confident in attempting to understand it via an interpreter, we made no attempt to confirm or disconfirm Everett’s linguistic analysis. Everett’s data and arguments are compelling, and they are fully consistent with the activities, dwellings, speech, songs and dance that we observed. The Pirahã language and culture seemed very distinctive in comparison to other indigenous Amazonian communities of which we (notably Vera) had prior experience. Nevertheless, we question the extent to which the Pirahã are quite as spectacularly unique and “different” as is suggested in your article.

To begin with, there exists, as well as so far uncontacted indigenous groups in Rondônia State (Brazil), at least one other monolingual Amazonian community, the Zuruhuã, who resist interaction with strangers. Many other indigenous groups have older community members who are monolingual. Monolingual speakers of other Amazonian languages are reluctant in just the same way as the Pirahã to engage in culturally “alien” tasks designed by linguists and psychologists and administered by strangers. So the first point we would make is that Tecumseh Fitch’s experiments may well be intrinsically, and not merely circumstantially, inconclusive. This critical point regarding what psychologists call cultural and ecological validity is not new, and is not confined to Amazonian cultures, but it bears reiterating.

Secondly, several of the characteristics described for Pirahã are common to other Amazonian (and other) languages, in particular the fusion of color terms with substance terms, the absence of quantifiers, a highly restricted numeral system, and the absence of grammatical tense. The last of these is particularly instructive. As long ago as the 16th century, Father José de Anchieta noted the absence of verbal tense in the Tupi languages of South America (unrelated to Pirahã).We have been researching, together with our colleagues Dr Wany Sampaio of the Federal University of Rondônia and Dr Jörg Zinken of our Department, the linguistic organization of time concepts in Amondawa. Our conclusion, in brief, is that this is radically different from that displayed in the languages most studied by linguists. It is not just a matter of a restricted number of terms, or of a lack of grammatical marking, but of a system based not on countable units, but on social activity, kinship and ecological regularity, that does not permit conventional “time-reckoning”. This is all the more striking when seen against the fact that the Kawahib system for space and motion, which we have also analyzed, displays a high degree of complexity. Space and motion terms are often “recruited” by languages to organize time, but not, it seems, by Amondawa, and we would hypothesize the same to be the case for Pirahã, as well as other Amazonian languages and their speakers. This does not mean that speakers of such languages have no time awareness, or that they are unable to talk about events and activities occurring in time. But they do not talk about time, or frame relations between events in terms of a notion of time separate from the events and activities.

These findings are very much in line with Dan Everett’s proposal that cultural practices and cultural norms influence both language structure and conceptual organization * and with his rejection of a one-way, Whorfian direction of influence from language to cognition. Cultures, however, change over time, often as a consequence of contact with other cultures, and we noted a particularly interesting instance of such change in the Pirahã. We had been asked to evaluate the plausibility of establishing an indigenous language school, and we had noted that Everett had written that the Pirahã saw no point in, and therefore were unable to, engage in basic literacy practices such as practising the writing of alphabetical characters. During our visit, we provided young Pirahã men with the wherewithal to do this, and at their request instructed them in how to do it. They did so readily and with a high level of competence, and we have audio-video recordings of them doing so. This occurred only after extensive discussions amongst the community members about whether or not they wanted a school (we have recordings of these discussions too).

This should remind us that cultures are not fixed entities, but dynamically changing ways of living together in changing circumstances. We do not mean to suggest that similarities between Pirahã culture and other Amazonian cultures make the Pirahã merely one among an undifferentiated mass of indigenous groups. All human cultures are unique, even if we can discern common patterns holding across different groups, and even though they are all products of our common humanity. Still less do we wish to downplay the distinctiveness, carefully documented by Dan Everett, of the Pirahã language. But to view just one group as the epitome of an exotic “otherness” is to fail to do justice to all the dimensions of the variation which still, today, can be encountered in the languages and cultures of the world. As Franz Boas maintained, the study of language is part of the psychology of the peoples of the world, and through comparative linguistics we can make progress in understanding both variation, and the limits on variation, of the human mind. For this reason we would find it regrettable either to treat Pirahã as just an isolated case study, or to reduce the significance of comparative language studies to the single issue of recursion.

Despite our general sympathy for Everett’s cultural approach to linguistics, there remains, to our mind, a problematic aspect to his account of Pirahã language and culture, namely his wide-reaching attribution of “gaps” in the linguistic system to “absences” in the culture. Our research on Amondawa conceptualizations of time leads us to the speculative conclusion that the absence -- as true of this Kawahib group as for the Pirahã -- of a cultural norm of accumulation (of food, seeds, money and goods in general) is related to the Amondawa notion of time as embedded in activity, kinship and seasonality. This is not the same, however, as saying that there is no domain of common, collective imagination of a time extending “outside” the present that is psychologically real for members of the Amondawa culture.

Whether or not we choose to call them “creation myths”, the Amondawa have narratives which both relate them to other groups and lend their own community a history and an identity. These narratives link the present day Amondawa to a time before “contact”, and in turn to the narratives that were told in those times. Everett maintains that such narratives simply do not exist for the Pirahã, but it may be that, in focussing on language structure, he has not “heard” the narratives; or that, faced with the competing narratives of Christianity, the Pirahã have chosen not to recount their own narratives to him. The Pirahã, it seems, both from Everett’s account and from our own observations, place little value on artefacts, or on the cultural transmission of the making of artefacts. Their material culture is, indeed, of an extreme simplicity. Yet the Pirahã could not survive without reproducing their culture. Could it be that in their art, in their language, and in their cultural identity, the Pirahã place more value on performance than on product? If so, they would not be dramatically different from many other human groups, merely at an extreme end of a continuum from material production to performative mimesis. If this, admittedly speculative, hypothesis has any truth, it might lead us to the conclusion that Dan Everett’s cultural linguistic analysis is not as far removed from Keren Everett’s observations about practices of cultural learning and teaching as he himself seems to think.

Finally, we should not forget that the Pirahã, like most minority indigenous groups, are very poor, and almost completely powerless in relation to the encroaching outside world. During our visit the people were hungry. Not just their way of life, but its foundation in their natural environment, is threatened. It would be good if a renewed interest in what we can learn from peoples like the Pirahã about the human mind were to be accompanied by an equal concern for helping them to acquire the resources necessary not just for survival, but for shaping their own future.

Vera da Silva Sinha, MA, MSc
Chris Sinha, PhD
University of Portsmouth
Department of Psychology

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 23, 2007 10:09 AM