Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Grammar of Happiness

Yesterday I attended a talk by linguist Dan Everett on the Piraha people of the amazon and their special language. In Piraha, the people call themselves Hi'aiti'ihi, roughly translated as 'the straight ones'. Their language demonstrates their straight intentions:

1. They have no present and future tenses. They speak in the now (and nearby in time)
2. They don't have conjunctions
3. They don't have a written form
4. They have recursive reasoning but not recursive language
5. They don't have colors
6. They don't have numbers (but know the names of all their children :))
7. They have 'we' but not 'I'

They call other people the crooked head :)

The point of no recursive constructions is in opposition to Chomsky's running idea of universal grammar (making it a tad bit controversial). There's a missing piece in linguistics. A sort of unequationess between semantics or meaning and syntax or form. We make the natural assumption that there's a code to crack in everything.

But what's more amazing is their way of life. The Piraha's are a hunter-gatherer tribe who have rejected civilized ways for over 300 years now. They don't have houses and don't trade and money is not a concept in their lives. They live within nature and know everything about the plants and animals around them, how to talk to them through whistle and gesture, and how to feel them.

A few years ago, they started to use some cloth from the outside world. And today, the Brazilian government has built some house structures and brought some electricity and water pumps to their living area. After much resistance.

The Piraha's have no concept of God as they don't live in the hypothetical. It's not in their frame of thought and consequently not in their frame of language. Dan went there as a missionary to convert them and to save them with God. After eight years of living in the Amazon and nature, he found himself carrying a different message :)

This is our world. This is everybody's Earth.
Be responsible, please.

(Pictures from search on the internet)

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