Imagine a world without words for colour, numbers or tales about imaginary beings. A tribe in a remote area of Brazil may live in just such a world, because their language lacks the words for such concepts and only allows people to talk about material things they have experienced directly.
Previous analysis of Pirahã, a language spoken by only 200 people in Amazonas, Brazil, suggested that it had some limited words for colours and at least the words for "one", "two" and "many". But further analysis by Daniel Everett at the University of Manchester, UK, reveals that these "words" are in fact phrases. "They are descriptions, and can vary from time to time," he says. For example, bio-pai-ai means "black", but translates literally as "blood is dirty".
Everett also argues that Pirahã is the only known language without numbers, numerals or a concept of counting. Words which were previously assumed to mean "one", "two" and "many" actually refer to relative size, and efforts to teach the Pirahã how to count in Portuguese failed.
Such features make the Pirahã language unique, and Everett's work identifies other aspects that appear to challenge the idea put forward by linguists such as Noam Chomsky that all languages have a similar basic underlying structure and that children are born with the major principles of language in place.
According to Everett, Pirahã culture does not require its people to talk about abstract concepts, gods, spirits or other things that they have not experienced at first hand. This would indicate that Pirahã grammar is subject to cultural constraints, something that shouldn't happen according to both Chomsky's theory and linguist Charles Hockett's "design features" view of language.
Paul Kay, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied Pirahã as part of his work on the language of colour, described Everett's work as "startling and fascinating". But words made up of phrases can still count as words, he says. "The question is, are their meanings composed of the meanings of their parts, or are they dead metaphors?" For example, are they metaphorically based idioms like "round the bend", which performs the same role as a word, or are they compositional phrases like "He's no longer of sound mind"?
Either way, this does not necessarily undermine Everett's main argument that Pirahã lacks one or more features that were previously thought necessary for a language, Kay says.
It's a wonderful world we live in...
San Nakji for President!