It is the story of Daniel Everett who was in his twenties in 1977 when he went to evangelize a tribe of hunter-gatherers at the heart of the Amazonia region, the Pirahãs. But things did not go as planned. Disembarking from the boat with his own certainties, he went back with a heart full of love and he discovered a surprising language which does not use words for numbers and for the past or future tenses: only the present counts.
Those two characteristics seduced the missionary, who even lost his faith and decided to learn this difficult language, similar to the singing of the birds. What he was about to discover was radically different from all other traditional linguistic models: the Pirahãs is now considered as the strangest language of the world. The Pirahãs is sung, mumbled, whistled but not written. The same term can refer to different things depending on which tone is used.
Years later, the American anthropologist issued a report which had the effect of a bomb in the community of linguists: it challenged THE most famous linguistic thesis of Chomsky’s « universal grammar » proving that the Pirahãs language did not use recursivity. Recursivity is the infinite capacity of the language to fit sentences in sentences: for example « Peter is talking to Jack » or « I have seen Peter talking to Jack » or even « You have seen that I have seen Peter talking to Jack », etc.
This new thesis contradicts Chomsky’s, for whom all languages in the world are based on a kind of universal grammar which obeys the same basic principles recorded in all human brains. Daniel Everett thinks that this is the language that structures thought: if the Pirahãs do not use recursivity, it is not because they mistreat syntax but because they do not need those tools to communicate the only thing that counts for them: the experience of present.
We could not say who is right in terms of linguistics. But this notion of present draws our attention. The Pirahãs do not use some words to name numbers (this does not exist in any other language) because numbers would imply an abstract representation which goes beyond the simple necessary of the present moment.
« By their sides, I have learnt to stay focused on one day at a time, and to not worry about useless stuff. I have become more confident. » said the anthropologist.
They have no notion of duration and time passing: they change their first names several times in their lives, they immediately eat what they catch, etc.
Daniel Everett said he « has been impressed by their happiness, their way of taking life as it comes ». And adding he « has never seen a population experiencing such difficulty and yet gifted with such a grace ». We wonder who has been evangelized.
[Photo credit: Daniel Everett]