Pirahã is the indigenous language of the Pirahã tribe. The tribe resides along the banks of the Maici River in the Amazon. With an approximated three-hundred recorded speakers, this language is inevitably unique. Pirahã is one of the most phonologically simple languages in existence, with only ten phonemes (units of sound). In our quest to understand human language, there is one feature that makes this language particularly interesting: it may lack terms for exact numbers.
Since there are very few living speakers and even fewer experts on Pirahã, the possibility that the language has no exact numbers can only be attested to by linguist Dr. Daniel Evertt, who has studied Pirahã for over thirty years. Everett postulates that the Pirahã lack exact words for numbers because their language does not allow for embedding, or recursion. Everett claims that this could be the result of culture shaping the nature of grammar.
What is recursion? This word has many applications, but can generally be thought of as an idea within an idea. When you try to define something by using the thing itself as the explanation, that’s recursion. For example, if I were to define a Matryoshka doll by saying that a Matryoshka is a doll with other Matryoshka dolls within it. In language, recursion is the ability to embed one clause into another clause. We can use “John’s brother’s house” as an example. “John’s brother” is an embedded clause within the sentence “John’s brother’s house”. In this example, one can only understand the sentence if they understand the meaning of the embedded clause, which implies that John has a brother.
Another feature of recursion is that it requires episodic thinking. Thinking in episodic time requires that one can imagine specific episodes of the past and anticipate future events from this imaginary activity. For example, you may think about past birthdays and how much fun they were, then from that vantage point you may anticipate your next birthday because you expect it to be as much fun. In the same way, to nest an idea within an idea requires that we remember each successive layer of nesting that took place in the past, so we can assign a future meaning within that context. It’s possible that recursion is found in human language because we can imagine ourselves in a different time than the present.
Recursion also allows for the transmission of a higher density of information. The example of “John’s brother’s house” is a compact idea, but its complexity can be further compounded by adding additional clauses. You can say: “John’s brother’s house is down the road from John’s girlfriend’s house,” without completely losing most listeners, but the density of information is double that of the initial “John’s brother’s house” example. This higher density of information is expressed by the seemingly inexhaustible combinations of words and sentences that most human languages can produce. Ultimately, this makes it possible for us to express ideas with great precision.
Chomsky and a number of well renowned linguists believe that recursion is a required component of human language, but a debate has grown over work by Daniel Everett and his experiences with the Pirahã. Evertt’s hypothesis is that Pirahã may be one of the only examples of a language that does not use recursion. Evertt’s simple example in Pirahã is to have the Pirahã say John’s brother’s house. To recreate this information, a Pirahã speaker would need to say: John has a brother. This brother has a house. This linguistic restriction relates to some important features of the Pirahã language: Pirahã lacks grammatical tenses, has a capped number of possible word combinations, and lacks exact numbers.
Why would a language develop with such constraints? For the Pirahã, there is an advantage to avoiding recursion. The jungle is a noisy place and in such an environment messages can be lost through the foliage and traffic of the jungle. Short sentences. Concise data. Information integrity. Many benefits. This type of communication could be what makes the Pirahã great hunters and helps them survive in such a harsh environment. In addition to the environment discouraging recursion, Everett discusses the possibility that the Pirahã culture might discourage recursion on a conceptual level.
The Pirahã have memories like all of us, but they don’t talk about them. They can conceptually understand, “My friend Jim’s dog had puppies that he gave to his sister in law”, but they do not have the grammar to say it all in one sentence. The Pirahã believe in the immediateness of presence. As mentioned earlier, recursion requires the use of episodic time, but if your culture only encourages the immediacy of presence, then you have no need for episodic thinking.
Daniel Everett originally came to the Amazon as a missionary trying to teach the tribe about Jesus. When the tribe started asking Everett how he knows this man, and whether he’s ever met him, they simply lost interest when he told them this was someone from the past that he had never met. The Pirahã’s culture dismisses anything outside of immediate present as unimportant. This influences how they approach communicating. Since the Pirahã only value the immediate and that which has been immediately witnessed, they don’t have a need to talk about the past or future. To the Pirahã, all things that are past and not attestable by witnesses are deemed irrelevant, and all things in the future are unknown and cannot be witnessed, so are meaningless.
The importance of the immediacy of presence in the Pirahã culture may put a restraint on recursion that not only limits the Pirahã’s grammar, but also their concepts. Mathematics is a recursive concept. All natural numbers are defined recursively, which means you can’t use numbers until you can conceptually understand the recursion needed to define them. Experiments have shown that the Pirahã have comparative words like “few” and “fewer”, but do not have a word for one. Though they conceptually understand quantities of more or less, they may lack the concepts and grammar that allows for exact numbers. Everette’s point that this outcome ultimately derives “from a single cultural constraint in Pirahã, namely, the restriction of communication to the immediate experience of the interlocutors”, is worth some serious attention here.
If it is true that culture can exercise a powerful influence on grammar, then can we see evidence of this in any other observable group? My question doesn’t intend to scour the globe for uncharted tribes, but rather to draw attention to our own environment and question whether these features can be seen in an environment oversaturated with technology.
Though both the jungle and city have audible noises, it can be argued that the cityscape has a much more complex variety of noises, including visual, audio, and conceptual noise. This noise is ubiquitous in our environment and takes the form of ads, messages, news, signs, and information constantly flowing and flashing in front of our eyes. Can this noise oversaturate our experiences and encourage a decrease in the use of recursion in our communication? This is not to say that busy city scapes will suddenly change our ability to use recursion, but rather that we may choose to avoid recursion when communicating in those environments for the sake of getting a point across more quickly.
Furthermore, if we accept a general definition of culture as that which expresses and manifests human thought, then the digital technologies that mediate our interactions may be akin to a type of culture. This culture not only influences and dictates our worldview, but it also constrains how we can communicate and the way in which grammar ought to be used. Digital technologies also absorb our attention in the present of a screen and are not conducive to triggering moments that reminisce epochal time. Instead they demand that we address the incessant blinking on our screens, without ever engaging in epocal time. It’s possible that digital technologies encourage some type of immediacy of presence similar to that which is found in the Pirahã culture.
With those ideas in mind are there quantifiable tests that we could put in place to explore the effects technology and modern culture has on recursion in communication? It would be interesting to see if the content of your texts changes depending on your environment, or whether the way you communicate ideas changes depending on what technology you use to communicate. Ironically, the Pirahã language could give us a glimpse into the types of limitations that a highly technological society might have on human communication.
There’s some evidence to support the idea that your grammar suffers the more you text, but there are few studies on how the content of what you text changes. In one study, students were asked to self-report their texting habits and then take a grammar test. Those who self-reported higher texting, scored lower on the test. But it would be interesting to compare the content of each message and see if there are tendencies towards less recursion in those who reported higher levels of texting.
It would also be interesting to see if the use of texting or other digital communication are different in a variety of surroundings. Would the structure of your communication be different if you’re camping in a forest, or on a busy metro? Of course texting is just one of the many ways we communicate in a highly technological world, there are memes, emojis, and countless other digital communications to consider, but the underlying question would still matter here; can the technology you use to communicate, and where you use it, have an effect on the use of recursion in your communication?
Everett’s hypothesis about the Pirahã language is still contested. Since there are so few Pirahã experts in the world it’s also likely to be very challenging to prove or disprove his theory, but developing experiments that study the level of recursion in digital communication could provide some insight as to whether culture could constrain grammar. Though there hasn’t been much research as of yet that answers this question, what we can deduce from the Pirahã is that our ability to communicate may be incredibly malleable, and not only be shaped by the world we inhabit, but even by our view of the world.
Check out my glitch article for more interesting ideas regarding technology:
Daniel, Everett, " Recursion and human thought. Why the Pirahã don’t have numbers: A Talk With Daniel L. Everett," Edge, 6.11.07, https://www.edge.org/conversation/daniel_l_everett-recursion-and-human-thought.
What I’ve Learned, “How did the First Language Begin? The Mystery of the Pirahã” September 22, 2019, YouTube, 19:35 (12:52), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5lzt42Tb20.
Dr. Daniel L Everette, "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha˜. Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language," Current Anthropology 46, 4 (2005): 622. https://www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Everett.CA.Piraha.pdf
Drew P. Cingel, S. Shyam Sundar, “Texting, techspeak, and tweens: The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills,” Sage Journals 14, 8 (2012): 1304-1320. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1461444812442927