[b-hebrew] Colors and Language

Peter Bekins pbekins at fuse.net
Tue Aug 21 11:00:40 EDT 2007


You state:

 >>It is impossible for the Piraha to not understand
 >>colour because it is an intrinsic part of our cognitive
 >>development (the foundation upon which we build

This is the issue with Piraha. The Linguist, Dan Everett, is arguing  
that the language is an exception to Chomskyian generative grammar  
and linguistic universals. This is most evident in the fact that they  
do not seem to use recursion, which is one of the most fundamental  
language universals. Recursion is the ability to create a more  
complex thought by embedding a phrase within a phrase within a  
phrase. If I remember correctly from when I previously read the New  
Yorker article, the example he gives is that they would not say "The  
dog who went down to the river caught a fish." Instead they would use  
a series of short assertions: "The dog went down to the river. The  
dog caught a fish."

Everett anticipates the argument that this would imply they are a  
cognitively inferior ethnic group. He does not hold that they are  
cognitively inferior, but that they have a cultural aversion to any  
sort of abstraction or cultural memory. Rather their way of thinking  
is entirely framed by the present. They create no art and have no  
myths or legends that are passed down in their society. This is also  
reflected in the way they speak about color in that they chose  
whatever analogy fits them in the moment to describe color. It's not  
that they don't understand color, but that they don't care about  
having a generic term for "red". Thus Yitzhak's point:

 >>Thus, one day they may say, take the gold-colored bowl, the next  
day,take the fire-colored bowl, etc.

The reason why Bible translation has been unsuccessful, in Dan  
Everett's opinion, is not completely that the target language is  
unsuitable, but that the Piraha could care less about stories about  
people from another time or another place.

Now, the Everetts disagree about how successfully they have been at  
learning the Piraha language (Dan's ex-wife is still a SIL translator  
and still working on learning the language. Her opinion is that it is  
partly a tone language so that more subtlety can be expressed by  
tone). Further, the Piraha feel threatened by outsiders and  
aggressively resist change, so one has to wonder exactly how much of  
their culture they have decided to share with these linguists and  
anthropologists, even the Everetts who have slowly built their trust  
(I love the story in the article about the two anthropologist  
brothers who try to "delight" the locals by making silly sounds only  
to receive blank stares). Lastly, as Everett has attacked the  
foundation of contemporary linguistics, the issue has obviously  
become polemicized so it is difficult to wade through the rhetoric.  
This is why other linguists have attacked Everett's view of the color  

Personally, I find the issue very interesting, but am in no position  
to make judgments either way. It is a good reminder to us to balance  
our more "universal" statements about language by constantly reading  
individual texts to remember all the weird ways real language can  
vary. At the same time, Piraha is such a rare and extreme case we  
should be careful about how much weight we give it in the big picture.

Pete Bekins


More information about the b-hebrew mailing list