Jim Coleman (of Nightingale at Large fame) made the following comment to an earlier post on Ocularcentrism. His insights are too provocative to lay hidden in the folds of this blog:

I wanted to be sure you noticed …the article in the April 16th New Yorker by John Calapinto on the language of the Piraha, a small Brazilian hunter-gatherer tribe living on two small Amazon tributaries.

The piece is mainly about Dan Everett’s linguistic studies of the Piraha language—an exceeding “simple” language—and various linguistic controversies, Chomsky, etc., such as doesn’t a language that shows no use of “recursion,” phrase nesting to build complexity, violate Chomsky’s generalization about a Universal human Grammar that has recursion as its fundamental feature.
But—for you and your Australia—note at the end of the article the insights of Everett’s former wife, also a linguist, also proficient in the Piraha language. She learned most from listing to the women sing to (teach language to) their children. In this speech even words themselves apparently disappear and only tones, lilts, clicks, and a lyric essence remains. And yet the story is told, the children learn. So, she hints at a much more modest and near mystical theory of their language.

You refer to the Aboriginal way of perceiving as a challenge to the hegemony of vision in the ocularcentrism of our culture. I’d guess the Piraha offer a somehow similar (or at least equally radical) challenge to our language-equals-thought assumptions. It is a principle of linguistics (established by the great Vergotsky, I think it is) that all human languages are completely adequate to express everything necessary for those speakers. The Piraha appear to sing stories to children that have no beginning, middle, or end. There is none of the ubiquitous nesting of phrases as in our culture and, in some sense, almost no words. To say the do not have a complete language is like saying the Aboriginal people cannot do art.

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