Ever since the Portuguese gold seekers discovered the Pirahã along the banks of the Maici River in Amazonas three hundred years ago, only few people were able to get access to them. The Pirahã people had always been able to keep foreigners at bay, until there was a measles breakout in the 1950s. The cure of the Pirahã children however brought something else with it: missionaries. In 1977, Daniel Everett, his wife and their two children settled down in one of the four Pirahã villages to convert the Pirahã people to christianity. If anyone would have told Dan Everett back then that thirty years later he would be a single man who had abandoned his faith and had become a controversial linguist who discovered something that would shake the foundations of linguistics, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.
To be able to communicate with the Pirahã, there was no other way but learning this tone language from scratch. Soon he found out that there was something special to the approximately four hundred Pirahã people and their language. They were, in fact, just happy people who had not the slightest interest in the God he was trying to bring to them. Pirahã don’t seem to worry about anything, nor they have feelings of regret or whatsoever. Worrying about the future or regretting the past is in essence impossible for Pirahã, since in their language there is no other tense than the present.
After thirty years of missionary, during which he became a fluent speaker of the Pirahã language, Everett did not manage to convert anyone of the Pirahã to christianity, and in the end it was Everett who had got converted to the simplistic Pirahã way of life without any God at all. This simplicity does not mean it is not a respectable language, on the contrary: the Pirahã have many words to refer to almost everything in their rich environment. The simplicity rather refers to the fact that the Pirahã language lack some linguistic features we consider to be normal and common across the globe, like numeracy. This might seem strange at first, but what is actually the sense of counting in a world without money?
“They don’t need to know how many children they have to know who their children are and how they feel about them”
Dan Everett argues that the Pirahã language is a clear example of a language being highly influenced by the culture it is part of. Being left by his wife and his children due to his radical personal changes regarding his believes, he decided to become a linguist and investigate intensively the Pirahã language. In addition to what he already knew, like the lack of numbers and tenses, he also found out that the Pirahã language lacks recursion. Therefore, Pirahã language lacks the ability to form structures as Mary told Bill that Joseph saw that Helena went to the supermarket, or even conjunctions like and, or and because.
After Everett’s published his findings, hell broke loose among linguists. The fact that the highly respected Noam Chomsky had recently stated that recursion was the most essential part of the Universal Grammar (a grammar all people have in their DNA to be able to learn our mother language), did certainly not help Everett to find allies in the debate that followed. Everett therefore initiated to collect recordings of the Pirahã language, which eventually were all analysed and proved that there was no recursion. However, linguists do not dare to contradict Chomsky’s theory and say that the fact that there is no proof of recursion, does not necessarily mean it is not existent.
Getting back to the debate whether culture has influenced the Pirahã language, I do certainly think that culture can affect any language. I agree on the statement the culture of the Pirahã does not need numbers, tenses and recursions and that therefore the Pirahã language was probably able to evolve the way it has. However, I do not agree on the statement that either Everett or Chomsky is right about recursion being part of the Universal Grammar. I would like to believe that perhaps recursion is part of the Universal Grammar of Pirahã language, but it might get deactivated in a preliminary state of first language acquisition due to the no necessity of such features in the Pirahã culture. In that sense, it might work like the phonological parameters that get deactivated when considered unnecessary. Recently the Pirahã children has started to learn Portuguese, which might reflect interesting observations regarding counting and use of past and future tenses.
It is however sad and unscientific that Dan Everett has been limited by Brasilian authorities, probably pressured by linguistic institutions, to further investigate the Pirahã language. I do strongly believe that when cases as the Pirahã language, that contradict the existing theories, arise, there should be a debate on how to further investigate and either change or strengthen the established theories about language. It is remarkable that science can act in such a religious way by believing there’s only one truth.