Arpith Siromoney 💬

The Pirahã and Chomsky’s Universal Grammar

The process is difficult, as I learned early in my visit with the Pirahã. One morning, while applying bug repellent, I was watched by an older Pirahã man, who asked Everett what I was doing. Eager to communicate with him in sign language, I pressed together the thumb and index finger of my right hand and weaved them through the air while making a buzzing sound with my mouth. Then I brought my fingers to my forearm and slapped the spot where my fingers had alighted. The man looked puzzled and said to Everett, “He hit himself.” I tried again—this time making a more insistent buzzing. The man said to Everett, “A plane landed on his arm.” When Everett explained to him what I was doing, the man studied me with a look of pitying contempt, then turned away. Everett laughed. “You were trying to tell him something about your general state—that bugs bother you,” he said. “They never talk that way, and they could never understand it. Bugs are a part of life.”

“O.K.,” I said. “But I’m surprised he didn’t know I was imitating an insect.”

“Think of how cultural that is,” Everett said. “The movement of your hand. The sound. Even the way we represent animals is cultural.”

Everett had to bridge many such cultural gaps in order to gain more than a superficial grasp of the language. “I went into the jungle, helped them make fields, went fishing with them,” he said. “You cannot become one of them, but you’ve got to do as much as you can to feel and absorb the language.” The tribe, he maintains, has no collective memory that extends back more than one or two generations, and no original creation myths. Marco Antonio Gonçalves, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, spent eighteen months with the Pirahã in the nineteen-eighties and wrote a dissertation on the tribe’s beliefs. Gonçalves, who spoke limited Pirahã, agrees that the tribe has no creation myths but argues that few Amazonian tribes do. When pressed about what existed before the Pirahã and the forest, Everett says, the tribespeople invariably answer, “It has always been this way.”

Everett also learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,’ ” Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like vrvcum’—a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”