Languages: the strange case of Pirahã and Aymara

In my last post, I wrote about the connections between language and thought, ie. linguistic relativity / determinism.

In today’s highly globalized world, languages get mixed and evolve at a much faster pace than ever before. English, for instance, is no longer only divided into British, American, Canadian and Australian English; we could say that there is a variety or dialect of English for any other natural language: Spanglish, Chinglish and so on. When French was the de-facto lingua franca of diplomacy (and, by extension, Western Europe), it was not substantially modified by other local languages; yet when English replaced it, after World War I and especially after World War II, it started changing immediately.

English, in particular its American variety, was not only originally used for international diplomacy; rather, as the United States rose a superpower in many fields (technology, business, etc.), one could argue that its language became widespread from the bottom. The average Joe in most other Western countries was exposed to American words: they wore blue jeans, they put coins into juke-boxes, they went to a bar. English words became commonplace over time, and this ultimately led to the creation of what could be easily considered a series of creoles that are, for the most part, mutually intelligible.

(A simple example: Italian immigrants in the US who returned to Italy brought the word sciuscià back with them. It is now seldom used anymore, but it was a common term in Southern Italy after WW2. As many may have guessed, it was the Italianized version of the English word shoe-shiner, whose direct Italian translation would actually be lustrascarpe.)

This “linguistic pollution,” while being very interesting on its own, makes it extremely difficult to analyze the nature of the relationship between language and thought. Language isolates, however, come to the rescue.

A language isolate is a language which shows no direct “genetic” correlation with any other language. The most widely known isolate is probably Basque (Euskera), spoken in an area between Spain and France. This is what the article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“All human beings are born free…”) looks like in Basque:

Gizon-emakume guztiak aske jaiotzen dira, duintasun eta eskubide berberak dituztela; eta ezaguera eta kontzientzia dutenez gero, elkarren artean senide legez jokatu beharra dute.

While this is unintelligible to most (if not all) non-speakers, we can immediately notice that at least one word is recognizable: kontzientzia. This proves that Basque has been somewhat polluted by surrounding Romance languages, and renders it useless for the research in question.

Thankfully, there are some language isolates that are spoken in areas that are also geographically isolate. The most striking example is the Pirahã language, spoken by less than 400 people along the Maici River, in Brazil. It is among the most amazing languages that we know about.

Widely studied by Professor Daniel Everett, Pirahã shows very peculiar characteristics, the most striking of which are the following:

  • A single word meaning both “mother” and “father”
  • No numerals, except for words that roughly mean “small quantity” and “large quantity”
  • No terms for colors, except for words that roughly mean “dark” and “bright”
  • Only three pronouns (I, you, they) that need to be combined to yield the others (I + you = we)
  • A very limited clause system that effectively prevents embedding sub-clauses

The lack of specific numerals has been actually tested by Everett in an experiment. The question is: do Pirahã speakers “understand” numbers even without having words for them? They certainly understand the concept of quantities. It has been written — I’m afraid I can’t locate the source right now, so please take this with a grain of salt — that any attempts to teach them actual numeral words failed, because while they understood the underlying concept, they were simply unable to use them, as they were not used to them. In a way, it is not unlike most people’s reaction to Esperanto’s future participle: we sort of get the grammatical idea, but we just don’t know what to do with it.

When I was in Egham, UK, for a summer English course, one of the teachers we had told us one thing that stuck with me: language is a habit. You can say you speak another language, he argued, only when you stop thinking in your native language and translate your thoughts; you can say you have mastered a language only when you think and speak directly in that language. The implications of this simple gem are enormous: in order to be proficient in a language, we have to absorb not just its rules, but its way of thought. If we were to learn Pirahã, then, we would have to rewire our brain in order to get rid of the distinct concepts of numerals, colors and so on that we have been using all our life. If we didn’t, we would just be translating all the time. This is clearly no easy task, but proves that language is indeed a habit.

Another very interesting language, albeit not strictly a language isolate, is the Aymara language, spoken by little more than two million people among Chile, Perú and Bolivia. While most other languages refer to the future as being “in front of us” and the past as being “behind us,” speakers of Aymara refer to the future as being “behind them,” and the past as being “in front of them.” It sounds out of place to us, but only until we put our prejudice aside and stop to think about it.

While we say that “times goes fast,” we still imply that we are the ones moving through time; we simply cannot, quite literally, take a break from it. We are forced to go through time, and we conceive this as physically moving through it. For this reason, we can claim that the future is ahead of us because we are going there, and that the future is behind us because we have already been there; in fact, we are coming from the past and going towards the future. It makes sense.

The Aymara people, however, use a different paradigm. They stand still, and time travels “through” them. They are facing the past because they know what has already happened, simply because, well, it has already happened. On the other hand, nobody knows what the future yields, therefore it is as if it were behind our back. We can only see in front of us, and we can only fully see the past. It makes sense as well, but if you find yourself having a hard time fully accepting this point of view, worry not: it’s quite common. At least you can understand how the Pirahã feel about dealing with concepts they never felt a need for.

Language indeed defines culture, and this is also why Esperanto can be difficult to handle at times: not having a pool of natural speakers, save for the relatively few “native” children of Esperanto-speaking couples, and therefore not having a unique backing culture, at times it simply feels too arbitrary. Moreover, most Esperantists have a strong aversion to the naturalization of foreign words, preferring etymological translations in order to preserve the language’s origins; failure to do so is referred to as krokodili. As an example, e-mail is called e-mail in most languages (even in French, which is notoriously picky about foreign words: they use logiciels on their ordinateurs rather than software on their computers!) Yet, the correct word for e-mail in Esperanto is not *emajlo or something similar, but rather retpoŝto: ret[a] (network), poŝto (mail.) How this helps new Esperanto speakers, especially in today’s world, is beyond me, but I suppose that this is a topic for another post.

A final note: many of you may have heard that the “Eskimo language” has an incredible number of words for snow. The idea behind this is that, since they are surrounded by snow, they talk about it a lot. While it’s a fascinating claim, it’s also completely false. Moreover, there is no such thing as an “Eskimo language” (just like there is no “Indian language” or “Chinese language”), and the word “Eskimo” is actually considered derogatory. However, this urban legend is yet another proof that language defines culture, or at least feeds prejudices — in this case quite innocent ones, thankfully — about different cultures.