Language without abstraction

March 22, 2011

I’ve been working on ideas for a speech I’m giving Saturday (for a Toastmasters contest), and one idea (which I’m thinking now won’t really work but I haven’t figured out what to do instead) had to do with the importance of words vs numbers. (Think of King Azaz and the Mathemagician in The Phantom Tollbooth.) I remembered having read about a language that has few if any numbers, where people manage with just words like “few” and “more.”

Looking for more information, I came across this fascinating article about the Pirahã, a tribe in northwestern Brazil. Don Everett, a linguist who first went there as a missionary with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, probably knows as much of their language as anyone else outside the tribe. Their language not only lacks numbers, Everett says, but any kind of abstractions. They have no interest in the distant past or future, or in anything that they cannot experience directly.

Imagine the challenges that presents to someone trying to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have read a number of accounts of the difficulties Bible translators have with languages that don’t have words that are key to understanding Bible stories and concepts. But I never heard before of a language without any abstract words.

Some linguists think that Everett is wrong. His claims fly in the face of much of what is widely accepted in academic circles regarding language and linguistics, particularly the theories advanced by Noam Chomsky. Everett himself was once an enthusiastic disciple of Chomsky, until he realized that the Pirahã language simply didn’t fit the theories.

I once thought I would spend my life doing what Don Everett and his wife Keren headed to the Amazon to do. Keren still works at learning Pirahã, with the goal of translating Scripture into their language. Don now considers himself an atheist, and his interest in Pirahã is for the language itself. The couple separated years ago, after Don concluded that he found no more spiritual meaning in the Bible than the Pirahã do. (Don did succeed in translating some passages, but the stories elicited no interest among the people of this tribe.)

I have long thought that one strong bit of evidence for a spiritual dimension to life is that people of all times and cultures have spiritual experiences and beliefs (not all people, but some people in all cultures). That the Pirahã do not (if Don Everett’s understanding is correct) does not weaken my belief in spiritual realities. But it is strange.