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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Piraha, linguistics, and direct experience

How is how we think connected to our language. This is a question that has always fascinated me, and there is a fascinating article in the April 16th issue of The New Yorker ("The Interpreter" by John Colapinto) that relates the reexamination of Chaomsky's theories of language (the rules of grammar are innate biological constructs.)

An Amazonian tribe, the Piraha, has resisted all attempts from missionaries and others in the outside world to teach some basic concepts (such as numbers larger than three) and knowledge of the past - or future. This small tribe lives only in the present and perceives reality "solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience." Dan Everett, a brilliant linguist now teaching at I.S.U. who lived with the Piraha for many years, argues their "dedication to empirical reality" explains their lack of interest in art and complete lack of interest in how they came into being -- their tribe has no creation stories. Everett suggests their immediacy of experience extends into their grammar and they state ideas and thoughts as discreet units. The idea that they accept as real only what they observe has made it impossible for them to accept the idea of a supernatural entity.
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