Daniel Everett, “Endangered Languages, Lost Knowledge and the Future”

Posted on Monday, March 23rd, 02009 by Stewart Brand
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Daniel Everett

Language revolution

The Pirahã tribe in the heart of the Amazon numbers only 360, spread in small groups over 300 miles. An exceptionally cheerful people, they live with a focus on immediacy, empiricism, and physical rigor that has shaped their unique language, claims linguist Daniel Everett.

The Pirahã language has no numbers or concept of counting (only terms for “relatively small” and “relatively large”); no kinship terms beyond immediate children and parents; no “left” and “right” (only “upriver” and “downriver”); no named distinction of past and future (only near time and far time); no creation stories or myths; and—most important for linguists—no recursion…

Read the rest of Stewart Brand’s Summary

  • http://tetramorph.blogspot.com tetramorph

    This language and its discovery are very interesting. I love the way it throws into doubt the kind of biological reductionism of Chomsky. Nevertheless, I find it ironic that a language that is incapable of carrying myths and folktales causes the writer of the post to go rhapsodic about preserving language for those reasons. I’ve read further articles about this language and Everett. It is clear that the version of “Jesus” that Everett was taking was one that needed “proving.” Just thought I should note that the Christian commenting here has managed to study linguistics and still believe in God. That is part of the “whole way of life, a whole set of solutions to problems, a whole classification system and body of knowledge about the natural world, a whole calendar system, a whole complex of myths, folktales, and songs,” that I also believe in preserving from my own language and culture. Thanks for posting this. I love the Long Now. Peace

  • http://www.blindeschildpad.nl/ Blinde Schildpad

    I do agree it is nice and laudable to preserve dying languages, but, please: no language has concepts or forces them on its users. Only people do and, occasionally, politicians. Even if, for example, “eskimos” were bon mot-compliant and had 300 words for snow (which they’re not and which they don’t), this would not mean they have more refined concepts or, forsooth, perceptions of crystalline precipitation. Who has never been in a position of being able to vividly cognize yet not being able to adequately verbalize and vice versa? And re. the Pirahã, those virtual Giant Pandas of the linguistic ethnologists’ lobby: yea, they do not recurse, count nor ride motorcycles. But does this mean they are somehow innately unable to? Poppycock!, I cry! Nay, any effort to preserve dying languages would be purely curatorial and, therefore, aesthetical and sentimental. On which, I might add, no shame resteth.

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  • http://www.khyentsefoundation.com/2009_02_translating_the_words_of_the_buddha_conference.html Peter Olin

    The Tibetan language may not be on the immediate verge of extinction, but nevertheless there it’s habitat and future is definitely threatened. And related to that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and a group other lamas and translators are starting a grand project for translating a large part of the Tibetan kanon of the buddhist teachings.

    The scale and time scale of the project gives associations to The Long Now foundation.

    Dzongsar Khyents Rinpoche says:

    “My main reason for convening this conference is that I believe it’s entirely possible that the survival of the Buddhadharma could depend on it being translated into other languages. I also believe that by translating and making available the Tibetan Buddhist texts to modern people, a vast swathe of Buddhist civilization and culture may be saved from global annihilation. It’s clear we need to act quickly, and I believe the only way we can accomplish this monumental endeavor is by working together—pooling our skills, resources, experience and energy and coming up with a plan for translating the Buddhadharma. We must decide where we want this process to be in 10 years, 25 years, 50 years and 100 years”

  • tp1024

    Even though I share the concern for languages lost to history, I can’t help thinking about one aspect, that seems to get left out of this discussion time and again.

    How did those languages came to be? They were obviously created by their speakers. So there must be long term processes that precipitate their formation. While everyone is asking: how many languages are being destroyed last decade, I am much more interested in the question, how many have been created?

    Humans are hardly the blind beings who take up any language that is imposed on them and forget about everything else, never to do anything new in the future.

    When Rome conquered Europe and the Mediterranean, it wiped out a lot of languages and established Latin as the new language. Yet, Latin has vanished, with the exception of some rather anachronistic remnants. But it gave rise to Portugese, Catalan, Galego, Castillian, French, Basque, Italian, Raeto-Roman, Romanian (and whatever languages I forgot) and influenced a plethora of other languages, including the one I’m writing in.

    So, where are the linguists monitoring the creation of languages? Warning against normative regulations that may mean that more useful, richer or easier to learn languages may never come into being? Isn’t ensuring improvement and creation of languages something that long term thinking should be more concerned about than the unavoidable extinction of old ones?

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  • ng

    I am curious whether the Piraha people can be taught the concept of numbers and whether they can be taught other languages which do use recursion. Is it that they are incapable of using these concepts or do they just not need them in their environment?

  • Grant

    Language is a tool we shape and use the same way we shaped and used flint to create axes, spears and knives. It begins with the discovery that our mouths, lungs, tongue and teeth can be used to create sounds that will convey information. A particular language lives in the mouths and minds of a particular group and will only live as long as the people who use it live. When one dies, the other dies. Just as the hammer has become more useful to our society than the rock for driving nails or smashing open shell fish, a language that loses its usefulness due to a better tool being available will be replaced by the new tool and the use of the old tool will die out. As newer and better tools become available to a society the old tools will die from lack of usage and what will kill them will be the plethora of new tools that do a better job in a better way than the old ones. This is a process that will only stop when there is no one left who knows how to make and use the old tool.

    American Indian languages are disappearing because it has become less and less useful. You can’t get a job, describe the world you live in or improve your position in society unless you speak English. Thus, the Indian language gets used less and less and must be preserved by artificial means like a specimen in a museum or a zoo. We are losing our languages for the same reason we are losing our tigers and zebras and all the other flora and fauna that are of no immediate use to us. It’s a process that can’t be stopped nor protected because language evolves to interact with an environment. When that environment is gone, so will the language be.

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  • http://www.newtrends2011.com/ New fashion 2011

    Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.

  • Luke Scientiae

    I really like the idea that Daniel Everett decribes about the Piraha, that they demand to know for each claim that is made where the information came from. So each sentence they say has to include an explanation as to how one knows what one is saying (“blah blah, I saw” or “blah, blah, someone told me”) I think we can learn from this to reduce people saying things we can’t track back to the source. http://bit.ly/pOdE5C

  • http://www.exactrades.com/trading-strategies/ Trading Strategies

    Very interesting post.This language and its discovery are very interesting. I really like the idea that Daniel Everett decribes about the Piraha,
    that they demand to know for each claim that is made where the
    information came from.Really Piraha language is a surprise.

  • http://www.exactrades.com/trading-strategies/ Trading Strategies

    Very interesting post.This language and its discovery are very interesting. I really like the idea that Daniel Everett decribes about the Piraha,
    that they demand to know for each claim that is made where the
    information came from.Really Piraha language is a surprise.

  • Dammann.ca

    AS per my point of view this is nice idea of languages about!I know it is very difficult to find but still you were done it. I like your such a nice & important sharing.

  • Anthonia

    I’ve spent a decade teaching on remote indigenous communities in Australia and although I never learnt to speak any of the local languages, they do not have words for numbers beyond the number 3, they have no words for colours and in some cases no word for “no”. They do not have words for “left” or “right” but orientate themselves according to North, South, East and West. They also live very much in the present.

  • Samantha Kirby

    The idea that there are no past and future tense is very
    intriguing to me. It is very hard to grasp the concept that the tenses do not
    exist. The book discusses about how the Piraha do this because they live in the present. They believe that if a person missed something that happened, they missed it. There was no way to go back. For the future tense, the Piraha believe that there is no need to worry about the future. They just need to live in the present and get things done there. Dr. Daniel Everett discussed in the book how it was really hard to adjust to this idea, but then once he did, he loved not worrying about the future and the past. He adopted to their culture and took on the Piraha way instead of trying to change their ways, which is what he first went there to do.
    On the other hand though, the American culture has a hard
    time adapting to this idea. We watched a documentary that followed the story of the book. Throughout the documentary, there were subtitles because obviously we cannot understand the language. The subtitles showed that the past and future tense do exist. I believe this is because the American culture has a hard time grasping and believing that it is possible not to have a past or future tense.We worry so much about the future and dwell on the past so we have no way of getting rid of these tenses.
    Personally, I like the idea of not having a past or future tense, only for the idea that we should not be worried about the past or future, but I like being able to talk about something funny that happened to me earlier in the day or something that I am looking forward to. Because of this reason, I believe that taking away the tenses in the American culture is not a good idea.

  • Susie Pohl

    In our college course about second language acquisition, we had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Daniel Everett about the topic of past and future tenses. When I asked him about this part from his book, he clarified what he meant when claimed that the language has no future or past tense. Everett firstexplai ned that in English we do not truly have a future tense; we add a modal verb in front of a present tense verb or use the present progressive, adding an
    -ing to the end of the verb and adding the present form of “to be” in
    front of the -ing verb to indicate the future. For example: “I go” becomes “I will go” or “I am going.” The modal verb “will” creates a future sentiment without changing “go” to a different tense. The “am” is the present form of “to be” and then the -ing added to “go” indicates progression, but is still in the present of progression. I recognized this concept because I had previously learned about this in my Pedagogical English grammar course from the previous semester. From this idea, Dr. Everett went on to explain that the Pirahã language works similarly for past tense and future
    tense. He said that often they do not talk about the past, but when they do, they will add key words such as “the other day” to the sentence, in a similar way that we would add “will” to signal the future. He said this also applies to the future. My overall understanding that I took away from the explanation was that the Pirahã speak only using the present tense of a verb, but add words that mark the time frame that they want to indicate. Thinking
    about this, I can better analyze how I think the Pirahã language works and the influence that the language has on modern linguistics. Additionally, this helps me to re-contemplate the other hypotheses that he expresses in his book, such as the main contradiction against Universal Grammar that the language has no
    recursion.

  • Henry Weyand

    In a recent interview with Daniel Everett as part of a
    college course on second language acquisition, he made some very interesting
    claims in regards to language and its effect on culture. I asked Dr. Everett the rather
    complicated question if whether or not he felt that the language was
    responsible for the unique culture of the Piraha people or rather, if the
    unique culture of the Piraha people was responsible for their language. There have been many theories proposed
    as to the effect of ones language on his or her culture and it seemed to me
    that Dr. Everett was able to propose an example that seemed to make the most
    sense. He explained that the
    Piraha do not have language aspects such as numbers, colors, or past or future
    tense because their unique culture has not required them to need these things
    that you or I would take for granted.
    As an example, lets look at the lack of any sort of past or future
    tense. Since the Piraha have
    always been able to meet their needs by finding resources in the jungle, and
    never really having any sort of lack of food or other natural resources, they
    have no need to worry about the future.
    It simply is not an issue to them.
    Also, in Piraha culture the past does not really matter either, simply
    because they find that there is no need to dwell on activities that happened in
    the past. This is not to say that
    they have no concept of events that have previously occurred. What I am merely saying is that an English
    phrase such as “it rained yesterday” would not be found in Piraha. This is
    because the fact that rain came yesterday just does not matter in the Piraha’s
    life. They are a people that live
    in the present, and do not believe, nor care about that which they cannot
    immediately experience. This evaluation of the unique relationship between
    language and culture is what makes Daniel Everett’s work not only extremely
    interesting, but groundbreaking as well.


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