Thursday, 30 January 2014

Piraha & Recursive Statements

It is interesting to observe the features of conversation and ponder its context.

There is a relatively recent description of a culture demonstrating a restriction of communication to the immediacy of experience in the Piraha language and its features challenge linguistic universals proposed by Noam Chomsky and Greenberg. These linguistic universals are interesting because they are built from objective observations about the components of human communication. It is part of an argument that language is able to influence the development of culture, culture being understood as “ways of meaning” (Everett 622 : 2005) and is one that is still being discussed and has been discussed since at least the “Sapir Whorf Hypothesis” in the 1930’s and probably much earlier than that. Its probably not really an even an argument, it's not if it's how.

Piraha is spoken by approximately 450 people living along the Maici river in the Amazona state of Brazil. It is classified as a Muran language and is a recent focus of attention because it is being argued by Everett (2005) as not featuring parts of Joseph Greenberg’s set of linguistic universals, namely counting numerals, colour terms, relative tenses and challenging Chomsky’s proposed universal grammar (Nevins et al 2009) the ability to make recursive statements (Sakel 2011), which is number five on Hocketts design features of human language.

One of the easier to understand differences is the absence of counting terms. It is hard to imagine what not using counting terms would be like, numerical systems are fundamental in our culture, I wonder what local areas of our central nervous system are involved? Piraha does contain terms describing quantities, Everett (623 : 2005) provides examples such as h’oi “small size or amount”, hoi “somewhat larger size or amount” and b’a a gi “cause to come together” which is translated as “many” (Everett 623 : 2005) but numerals do not appear to be used. The Piraha are in a contact with cultures that do use numerals, such as Everetts description of portugese speaking river boat traders, and Piraha “gatekeepers” are using portuguese terms (lexical elements) without counting terms. Also Everett does describe Piraha realizing that counting is important in nonbarter economic relations and describes the subsequent unsuccessful attempt made to learn portuguese counting terms so that they could understand when a fair trade was made (Everett 626 : 2005).  

Counting is fundamental to Western culture, and is probably fundamental to the integration required for civilization and is a predominant component in the experience of modernity and the pragmatic communication of value. Examples that come to mind include childhood songs, such as Danny Kay singing “Inch worm” on episode 316 of the Muppet show, and recent discussions of Archimedes using polygons to calculate pi, the ratio of the diameter to the circumference.

Numbers are used to give abstract quantities to their subjects. In reading a translation by McDevitte & Bohn (1869) Julius Caesar's “The Gallic Wars” one becomes conscious of the characteristic interests of the author, the author (Gaius Julius Caesar) uses numbers regularly, he mentions lists obtained from the camps of the Helvetii, written in Greek, detailing the number of men able to bear arms amongst the Helvetii and their allies (Caesar Gael 3.11). The author (Gaius Julius Caesar) talks about the characteristics of the tribes, it is a pragmatic cultural analysis, focusing on military capabilities and tactics and describes a value that McDevitte & Bohn (1869) have translated as “lust for sovereignty”, which probably describes the view of members of a state system that values power, discipline and organisation and legitimizes slavery, possibly the opposite side of what we would call “the value of autonomy or freedom”.

Numbers are an important feature of Thucydides “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (411 BC) which is considered the earliest attempt at an evidence based history, describing the wars between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece (431 -404 BC). The smallest tactical unit mentioned by Thucydides is a lochus which is approximately 400 to 500 men, Xenophon used the term to describe 100 and Thucydides regularly uses the number 300 thus term lochus should be taken as the smallest tactical unit.

Differences in numbers or quantity are taken to be one Greenberg's linguistic universals, they manifest in unique nouns, verbs or noun and verb modifiers such as inflection and can be expressed by a numerical system in cultures that have them. The sparsity of ways of describing differences in number in Piraha language challenges this but there are multiple examples of hunter and gatherer populations having no specific number word other than one.

With regards to Colour terms, Piraha are able to distinguish black, white, red, yellow, blue green but do not use“colour terms” as an abstract category. Everett (628 : 2005) goes on to argue that what colour terms and numbers have in common are that they are used to quantify beyond immediate experience.

The absence of recursive statements, which Everett describes as a lack of embedding (628 : 2005) is also taken as an example of the focus of the Piraha language on immediate experience. An example of a recursive statement would be a noun phrase in a noun phrase, or a sentence embedded in a sentence, ie “(Personal pronoun) I was watching the hawk, (relative pronoun) that was watching the dove, that was watching the worm and the worm wiggled away”. The significance of recursion is proposed by Noam Chomsky as being the only trait of human communication that distinguishes it from (non human) “animal communication”. This recursive feature is related to the ability of humans to have insight into their actions.

The significance of the described absence of recursive statements in Piraha is still being discussed. Nevins, Pesetsky & Rodrigues (2009) are challenging Everett’s (2005) interpretation, they argue that the basis for the argument of an absence of recursive statements is due to a speech rule of “one event per utterance” (Nevins et al 363 : 2009). If there is a rule of one event per utterance this does not demonstrate the absence of embedding and necessitate a principle of the immediacy of experience. An example of this is evidence of someone indicating someone else has seen an event, it involves two events, the seeing of and what was seen (Nevins et al 363 : 2009) within a single utterance.

Part of Everett’s reply to this challenge by Nevins, Pesetsky & Rodrigues (2009) is that embedding is more a feature of human consciousness and that languages tend to reflect this. It is possible that the absence of embedding in Piraha language does not mean that it does not occur in Piraha thinking, concepts can make anaphoric or cataphoric references to other concepts, the quote often used is John Brockman's response “Idea’s are built inside of other ideas.” (Brockman 273 : 2013) in Thinking Edited by John Brockman and published by  Harper-Collins. Again this is still being argued about.

From Adam Scherlis (August 2010)


Everett, Daniel. (2005). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha. In Current Anthropology. Volume 46. Number 4. August –October 2005. Pages 621 -646.

McDevitte, W.A & Bohn, W.S. (1869). Commentaries on the Gallic War. Harper’s New Classical Library, New York : Harper & Brothers, 1869.
Available at

Nevins, Andrew; Pesetsky, David & Rodrigues, Cilene. (2009). Piraha Exceptionality : A Reassessment. In Language, Volume 85, Number 2. June 2009. Pages 355 -404.

Sakel, Jeanette (2011). Transfer and language contact : the case of Piraha. In the International Journal of Bilingualism. Volume 16. Issue 1. Pages 37 -52.


Predicate : The part of a sentence that modifies the subject, one of two parts of a sentence. Ie Sentence = Subject + Predicate.

See Zero copula. Subject joined to predicate without overt indication. Feature of some Russian languages, generally only used in current tense, but there may possibly be an exception.

Useful website on the discussion

Recursion and Human Thought . Article published by Edge. @

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