Monday, July 16, 2007

A people only in the now

This is probably the most fascinating post so far. The Piraha (pron. pee-da-HAN) language not only has no numbers, fixed color terms, terms for "left" or "right," nor quantifiers like "all," "each," "every," "most," and "few," they have no abstract thought at all. They live only in the sensate present. This means no tradition of art or history past a couple of generations, nor any mythology/religion.
This cracks my presumption that all earlier cultures had more accessible intimations of the Divine, more spirituality, as seemingly suggested by Joseph Campbell. Isn't mythologizing and yearning for the greater a natural function of the brain, like language (but read on below)? The Piraha's apparently deficient state, however, also shows up all the the vanity and pride other people put into the stories and identities they weave about themselves, especially collectively. Such an urge or cultural habit would appear to be unnecessary.
The language is somewhat rudimentary as it does not seem to have recursion. This is a phrase inserted in another phrase of the same type for infinite variation (e.g. The man who is wearing a hat is walking down the street), the only feature that Noam Chomsky whittled down to being the essence of universal, built-in-brain grammar that distinguishes humans from animals. The allegation is that culture/environment plays a more fundamental role than supposedly inviolable Chomsky doctrine allows -- acquired rather than built-in.
That's decades of widely accepted "truth" upended.
It's a New Yorker piece, so it's long. Just take it in bites.

Update on counting from MIT team here.

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