Instead of dooming your brain with more COVID analysis, I’m going to write about a very interesting New Yorker article from 2007, that happened to be recommended by someone I’d say is one of the smartest people on Twitter — and certainly by far, the most insightful young person by a long mile -@noampomsky. Check Ava out. She’s awesome.
The article, called The Interpreter, by John Colapinto, is about Dan Everett – a true adventure linguist, who, gifted with a facility to analyze languages from basically nothing, underwent religious conversion, became a Christian missionary, and lived with one of the most linguistically primitive tribes on the planet, the Pirahã. Intending to convert them, he found they had no interest in Jesus, since he was no longer alive. In fact, they had little interest in anything that wasn’t immediate. One of the only tribes to avoid assimilation from the larger Brazilian culture, they are still hunter-gatherers with an extremely sophisticated knowledge base on how to survive in the jungle.
The article mostly maps Everett’s struggles with attempting to apply Chomsky’s recursive grammar theories to the Pirahã language. Which fail utterly. They communicate in a distinctly tonal, almost animal-chirpy form of language, and have little interest in relating anything to anything else. The article goes to lengths to explain they are not some anomalous tribe of mentally deficient humans. In fact, their knowledge of plants and animals is encyclopedic. They just don’t care about tomorrow.
And they even have poor object permanence, or rather people permanence. When a person is out of sight, they are profoundly out of mind.
The example of their exception is a profound dismantling of the notion of language as a precursor to humanity. And if one believes my own theory of Structural Memetics, which basically states that social structure creates knowledge structure, there is simply no rationale to believe language, as a designed/created product, should come first. There is no question that language does participate in the feedback loop that creates human consciousness – as well as itself. But when it comes to the “chicken and egg” problem — it appears that the chicken came first.
What’s uniquely fascinating is that the Pirahã are likely the only extant example of humans dealing with solely the bottom of the knowledge structure stack. There are not even tribal creation myths to contaminate their thinking, though it is fascinating they manage to maintain a sense of identity without them.
Are they low empathy? Well, they’re certainly not practicing much connection or empathetic development with anyone outside their in-group. The article notes that they extensively use prosody, the sing-song tonality that mothers and fathers alike use to soothe infants. And they call the language of everyone on the outside of their world speaking “Crooked Heads” — here’s the pull quote from the piece.
Everett turned to me. “They want to know what you’re called in ‘crooked head.’ ”
“Crooked head” is the tribe’s term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled. “That’s completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe,” Everett told me later. “They reject everything from outside their world. They just don’t want it, and it’s been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this jungle in the seventeen-hundreds.”
One thing to think about when reading this piece — what does it really feel like to live in the moment? The Pirahã have answers. But they’re likely not what you thought. As we relate, so we think can go backwards as well. And might not be as emotionally satisfying as one might think. Complexity and evolved love might just go together.
Naturally, the article written in 2007 doesn’t include Dan’s latest work. I wrote him on his contact page. We’ll see if he writes back. A cursory look at his blog indicates he’s still fighting the Chomsky-ites. Maybe he’ll appreciate a fresh approach.