Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?

“The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.”


Mayan Number System

Mayan NumbersOur culture has a base 10 system and uses digits and place holders. We have been exposed to this system our whole lives and find it hard to imagine any other way. The truth is that our system is based on choices we have made rather than by some inherent quality of numbers or math. Different cultures have invented math and numbers in different ways. Take a look at the link below to get a sense of the Mayan system which was a base 20 system.


What Happens When You Can’t Count Past Four?

Interesting case of a tribe whose language doesn’t have any numbers past four. What effect would this have? Why would a language evolve this way?

“Two recent studies of Amazonian Indians reported in the journal Science, take a crucially different view. These studies, far from maintaining that number words are convenient, propose they are actually necessary.”


Why Save a Language?

“Asked to elaborate, he says that if indigenous people want to give up their ancestral language to join the modern world, why should we consider it a tragedy? Languages have always died as time has passed. What’s so special about a language?”