Monday, October 31, 2011

The Piraha

Ah, the ambiguous third blog of the unit. Since there's no specific assignment for this one and I already covered two of the assigned topics in my first two blogs, I thought I would do something a little differently and look at how having no written language affects a modern culture. (I know we've been advised to stay in antiquity but this just sounded like too much fun to pass up.) The Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon jungle of only about 350 people, still has no written language or even a real concept of what a written language is to this day. Living in a literate world without even having a word for "literate" presents some challenges for the Piraha people.

The Piraha's spoken language is more similar to humming and whistling than what we would consider speaking. It was nearly indecipherable to ethnographers that studied the tribe, until Professor Dan Everett had this interesting experience:

During one of his first visits, in the late 1970s, he began to understand what the tribespeople were saying. It was a rude awakening. Eavesdropping one night, desperately trying to piece together what little he knew of their words, he realised with a shock that the warriors, marching along the banks of the river, were planning nothing less than to murder him by moonlight.
Professor Everett ran back to the hut and locked his wife and three children inside. "I grabbed all their weapons, their bows and arrows," he says. It was an act of triumph; the outsider had caught them off guard and proved his worth. The tribe was so amazed he had actually worked out what they were saying to each other that they treated him with a cautious kind of respect. From then on, neither he nor his family had problems." (
Once he was able to understand the people, he was able to say for certain that as well as having no written language, they were completely innumerate. This allowed others in the area to essentially rip them off for the Brazil Nuts they gather and export, one of the problems faced by a society today with no written language. Even after months of Everett attempting to teach them to count, they were still having difficulty just counting from 1-9, as they had no conception of what numbers or counting or basic arithmetic were. They didn't even have words like "every", "all", or "more" in their language. In addition to this, they have no words for separate colors, no creation story or myth, no type of creative or decorative art and few of them could even remember the names of all of their grandparents. Some people would starve even when there was nearby food available because they had no reliable way to pass on information for more than a generation or two.

Piraha People
Despite all of this, Everett as well as other Ethnographers that have studied the Piraha have noted that they live a very "here in the moment", "carpe diem" lifestyle. He noted that they get excited when planes fly by overhead and enjoy just watching people walk by in the jungle. They have no past tense or subordinate clause in their language, and Everett learned that what he once thought were people eager to learn to read, write and count, had no desire to learn from him and were actually resistant to writing their language down. He found that they only came to his classes because they enjoyed each other's company and he made them popcorn.

Was it a lack of written language that caused their culture to live solely for the present, or was it a culture of people only concerned with the here and now that caused no written language to be formed? What I called "problems" earlier in the post would not be viewed as problems by the Piraha at all. Why would it be important to remember your dead grandparents names in a culture with no tradition of history and without a past tense to even describe it? It is so hard for us to imagine life without a written system of language, and especially without a number system or any type of words to describe quantity. But thus is life for the Piraha, and they don't seem too unhappy about it.


  1. Woah, this was awesome. I feel like it would be very easy to feel like you have no identity at all, to feel spurred on to form some sort of history, to START remembering your grandparents' names, so the questions you asked are really interesting. In so many other cultures, despite not having a written language, the people still knew their history - the Aryans, for example, the early Greeks, so it seems like it could be more of the matter of living in the moment that led to no written language. Maybe not. I wonder how that plays into folk knowledge, if the mothers were taught how to birth babies, or if they rely on instinct for how to solve daily problems.

  2. I think this post highlights elements of all the units we've studied--folk knowledge, oral knowledge, and written knowledge--within one civilization. What fascinates me about the Piraha is that they have no institutions of knowledge. In class, we've been discussing the library, the monastery, the university, of which the Piraha have none. And it seems that they have a strong reluctance in developing these institutions, which interestingly enough can be seen across many of the cultures that we've studied.

  3. The only reason I can think of for a civilization not to have a written language would be that these people had everything they needed. As we've learned in this unit, most writing systems started with writing down business transactions such as Person A bought a banana from Person B for X amount of money.
    But if a civilization had access to an abundance of resources, where no one was in terrible need it seems as if a there would be no need for a written language.

    I'd be curious to study this civilization more... is there relative peace and understanding among the citizenry?