[b-hebrew] Colors and Language

Kevin Riley klriley at alphalink.com.au
Wed Aug 22 21:41:41 EDT 2007

-------Original Message------- 
From: Peter Bekins 
Date: 22/08/2007 1:01:24 AM 
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 
As an amateur linguist I find the story fascinating, even though my main
interest is not in language universals.  As an anthropologist I find the
jump from 'one isolated hunter-gatherer tribe does X' with language and
culture to 'this shows us what people were like in the time when we were all
hunter-gatherers' to be very worrying.  The idea that the Piraha have kept
there culture virtually unchanged for decades and resisted all innovations
from outside is fascinating.  The idea that their language and culture has
remained virtually unchanged for millennia and reflects what everyone's
culture was like X thousand years ago just cannot be supported by the
evidence.  [This is similar to the etymological fallacy in language study] 
We know of languages used by other hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa,
Australia, Asia and the Americas that bear no resemblance to Piraha at all,
nor do the basic assumptions of the cultures.  The group they split off from
a few centuries ago seem to have been very different.  I believe it is too
soon to re-write the linguistic and anthropological text books on the basis
of one language and culture that is still not well understood.  To make an
analogy to show why I am worried: this is like taking a group of
ultra-orthodox Jews [take your pick from the many such groups] who resist
change, particularly change from the surrounding culture, and from their
culture and use of Hebrew extrapolating to what the Israelite culture and
Hebrew language must have been like in pre-monarchical Israel.  If you don't
buy that argument, then you should be sceptical of claims that the Piraha in
some special way give us an insight into hunter-gather societies in general,
or into what they were like in the past.  When evaluating arguments about 
exotic' cultures, I find making an analogy with a familiar culture helps to
show whether the explanation has any chance of being plausible.
Kevin Riley

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