Dan Everett and the Pirahã
The April 16 edition of The New Yorker, has an excellent article by John Colapinto, “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?” Here’s how it starts:
One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering tributary of the Amazon. On the bank above us were some thirty people— short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.
Dan’s most important paper on this general topic is “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language“, Current Anthropology, 2005.
There’s an interesting response by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues,”Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment“, ms, March 2007; and Dan has responded to the response: “Cultural Constraints on Grammar in PIRAHÃ: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007)“.
I recall while in Peru being introduced to the Quechuan language. It varied so drastically from Spanish that I never gave much thought in attempting to understand the basics of it’s phonetic construction. I regret the opportunity to have first hand accounts with such a native language, it’s a fascinating subject.