The article in the New Yorker by John Colapinto about the Amazonian Piraha tribe (also referenced in the April 17 posting below) is provoking thinking from a whole variety of viewpoints. A Google search produces a range of responses to the article from linguists, sociologists, anthropologists, generic bloggers, and even Taoists. What seems to have captured the imagination most is the claim by Dan Everett, the focus of Colapinto’s article and the leading authority on the language of the Piraha, that their language structure uniquely reflects their cultural proclivities.


Colapinto writes,

The tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Piraha do not think, or speak, in abstractions – and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word “xibipio” as a clue to how the Piraha perceive reality solely according to what exits within the boundaries of their direct experience–which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Piraha say that the person has not simply gone away but “xibipio”–“gone out of experience,” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light “goes in and out of experience.”

To Everett, the Piraha’s unswerving dedication to empirical reality–he called it the “immediacy-of-experience principle”–explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Piraha had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking, “Have you met this man?” Told that Christ died two thousand years ago, the Piraha would react with much as they did to my using bug repellent [which made no sense to them]. It explained their failure to build up food stocks, since this required planning for a future that did not yet exist…It explained the Piraha’s lack of original stories about how they came into being, since this was a conundrum buried in a past outside the experience of parents and grandparents.

Specifically regarding the name of colors, Colapinto reports that

the Piraha have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. “So if you show they a red cup, they’re likely to say, ‘This looks like blood,'” Everett said. “Or they could say, ‘This is like ‘vrvcum’ ‘–a local berry that they use to extract a red dye.”

This full tilt “immediacy of experience” approach is fascinating but also seductive, especially for those who seek to achieve full awareness of the present (i.e., artists, writers, meditation students and Buddhist practitioners for example.) In addition to the “state of mind” angle, Colapinto’s article touches on the third rail issue that is being played out in the linguistic community between “Universal Grammar” Chomskyans and the resurgence of a more culturally-bound view of language. While not privy to the full esoterics of that discussion, I have an ongoing interest in the language/living interface, particularly as it applies to visual expression. Certainly a number of authors are plumbing that vein including Leonard Shlain (The Alphabet vs The Goddess), Alfred Gell (Art and Agency), and a number of writings about prehistoric cave art. More about this in future postings.