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The Pirahã language is a language spoken by Pirahã people of Brazil. They live in Brazil, along the Maici river, a tributary of the Amazon.

Múra-Pirahã
Spoken in: Brazil
Total speakers: ~150
Genetic
classification:
Múra-Pirahã
Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1-
ISO 639-2sai
SILMYP
Contents

Language and culture

The Pirahã culture has the simplest known kinship system of any human culture. A single word, baíxi (pronounced ), is used for both mother and father, and they appear not to keep track of relationships any more distant than biological siblings. Inbreeding is common.

The language is unusual in having no numerals, although this was much more common in the world's languages before the spread of modern trade and technology. There are apparently only three words that roughly describe quantity, somewhat akin to "a few", "some", and "many." There is no grammatical distinction between singular and plural, even in pronouns (see below). There is little distinction between individuated quantities and mass quantities, although this in and of itself is not so uncommon among languages. It is not thought to be possible to distinguish between, for example, one big fish and several small fish. However, it might well be the case that researchers simply have not yet learned how to make the distinction.

Without numerals, the Pirahã do not count. They use only approximate measures, and in tests were unable to consistently distinguish between a group of four objects and a similarly-arranged group of five objects. When asked to duplicate groups of objects, they duplicate the number correctly on average, but almost never get the number exactly in a single trial.

Being (correctly) concerned that, because of this cultural gap, they were being cheated in trade, the Pirahã people asked a linguist that was working with them to teach them basic numeracy skills. It is said that after eight months of enthusiastic but fruitless daily study, the linguists concluded that they were incapable of learning the material, and discontinued the lessons. During this time supposedly not a single Pirahã had learned to count up to ten or to add 1 + 1. However, the use of candy as rewards calls into question whether the Pirahã were actually at the study sessions to learn to count.

There is also a disputed claim that Pirahã lacks any colour terminology, being one of the few cultures (mostly in the Amazon basin and New Guinea) that only have specific words for light and dark. This and other surprising features of the language are examined in Daniel Everett's paper Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language (http://ling.man.ac.uk/Info/staff/DE/culturalgrammar.pdf). The Pirahã language makes a fascinating data point for consideration of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and more generally for study of the link between language and cognition.

Phonology

The Pirahã language is one of the phonologically simplest language known, claimed to have as few as ten phonemes, one fewer than Rotokas. However, this requires analysing [k] as an underlying /hi/. Although there are words where a speaker may substitute [k] for [hi], theoretically extending this to the entire language is a rather dubious proposition. Some linguists have wondered whether the excessively small inventory of Pirahã is at least partially an artifact of the linguistic analysis, motivated by a desire to find a minimal system, rather than an accurate representation of the language. The 'ten phoneme' claim also does not consider the three tones, at least two of which are phonemic (marked by an acute accent and either unmarked or marked by a grave accent).

The segmental phonemes are:

BilabialAlveolarVelarGlottal
Voiceless stop p t k* ("x")
Voiced stop b g
Fricative s* h
Vowel a i o
* [k] has been recently claimed to be an optional portmanteau of /hi/. Women sometimes substitute /h/ for /s/.

The number of phonemes is thirteen if [k] is counted as a phoneme and there are just two tones; if [k] is not phonemic, there are twelve phonemes, one more than the number found in Rotokas. (English, by comparison, has about thirty to forty-five, depending on dialect). However, many of these sounds show a great deal of allophonic variation. For instance, vowels are nasalized after the glottal consonants /h/ and (written h and x). Also,

/b/ : the nasal [m] after a pause, the trill before /o/.
/g/ : the nasal [n] after a pause (that's right, it's an apical alveolar nasal!); is an alveolar-linguolabial double flap that has only been reported for this language, where the tongue strikes the upper gum ridge and then strikes the lower lip.
/s/ : in women's speech, /s/ occurs as [h] before [i], and "sometimes" elsewhere.
/k/ : in men's speech, word-initial [k] and are interchangeable. For many people, [k] and [p] may be exchanged in some words. The sequences [hoa] and [hia] are in "free variation" with and [ka], at least in some words.

Because of its variation, Evrett states that /k/ is not a stable phoneme. By analysing it as /hi/, he is able to theoretically reduce the number of consonants to seven.

There is also a recently observed trilled alveolar-labial affricate, , that is shared with the Wari language.

Because of the consonant chart above, Pirahã is sometimes said to be one of the few language without nasals. However, an alternate analysis is possible. By analysing the [g] as /n/ and the [k] as /hi/, it could also be claimed to be one of the very few languages without velars:

BilabialAlveolarVelarGlottal
Plosive p t  
Nasal stop m n
Fricative (s) h
Vowel a i o

When languages have inventories as small and allophonic variation as great as in Pirahã and Rotokas, different linguists may have very different ideas as to the nature of their phonological systems.

Grammar

The basic Pirahã personal pronouns are ti "I", gíxai "you", hi "s/he, they". These can be combined: ti plus gíxai, or ti plus hi to mean "we", and gíxai plus hi to mean "y'all". There are several other pronouns reported, such as 'she', 'it' (animal), 'it' (aquatic animal), and 'it' (inanimate), but these may actually be nouns. The fact that different linguists come up with different lists of such pronouns suggests that they are not basic to the grammar.

For possession, a pronoun is used:

   paitáhixitóhoi
Paitas/hetesticles
"Paita's testicles"

Pirahã is agglutinative, using a large number of affixes to communicate grammatical meaning. Even the 'to be' verbs of existence or equivalence are suffixes in Pirahã. For instance, the Pirahã sentence "there is a paca there" uses just two words; the "is" is a suffix on "paca":

   káixihíxao-xaagágáihí
paca-existsthere
"There's a paca there"

Pirahã also uses suffixes which communicate evidentiality, a category which English grammar lacks. One such suffix, -xáagahá, means that the speaker actually observed the event in question:

   hoagaxóaihipáxaikaopápi-sai-xáagahá
Hoaga'oais/he[a fish]catch-ing-(I saw it)
"Hoaga'oai caught a pa'ai fish (I can tell you because I saw it)"

(The suffix -sai turns a verb into a noun, like English '-ing'.)

Other verbal suffixes indicate that an action is deduced from circumstantial evidence, or based on hearsay. Unlike in English, in Pirahã a speaker must state their source of information: they cannot be ambiguous. There are also verbal suffixes that indicate desire to performs an action, frustration in completing an action, or frustration in even starting an action.

There are also a large number of verbal aspects: perfective (completed) vs. imperfective (incompleted), telic (reaching a goal) vs. atelic, continuing, repeated, and commencing. However, despite this complexity, there appears to be little distinction of transitivity. For example, the same verb, xobai, can mean either 'look' or 'see', and xoab can mean either 'die' or 'kill'.

In order to embed one clause within another, the embedded clause is turned into a noun with the -sai suffix seen above:

   hiob-áaxáikahaíkai-sai
s/heknows-reallyarrowmake-ing
"He really knows how to make arrows" (literally, 'he really knows arrow-making')
   tixog-i-baígíxaikahaíkai-sai
Iwant-this-very.muchyouarrowmake-ing
"I'd really like you to make arrows" (lit., 'I really like/want your arrow-making')

Miscellaneous

Interestingly, Pirahã uses five discourse channels; information may be spoken (the default), whistled, hummed, yelled or encoded in music. Whistled languages are rare, making Pirahã an interesting study in the strength of tone and stress in communication.

Pirahã has a few loan words, mainly from Portuguese. Pirahã "kóópo" ("cup") is from the Portuguese word "copo", and "bikagogia" ("business") comes from Portuguese "mercadoria".

Only about 150 people speak Pirahã, in eight villages along the Maici; however, most of these people are monolingual, knowing only a few words of Portuguese. It is the belief of the Pirahã people that their language is the best one to speak, so there seems to be no immediate danger of Pirahã dying out.

References

RMW Dixon and Alexandra Aikhenvald, eds., The Amazonian Languages. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Everett, Daniel, 1986. "Piraha". In the Handbook of Amazonian Languages, vol I. DC Derbyshire and GK Pullum (eds). Mouton de Gruyter.

External links

es:Idioma pirahã sv:Múra-Pirahã

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