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Cultural constraints on cognition?

  1. Aug 22, 2004 #1


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    Marcus, you mentioned an interest in linguistics. I wonder what your neighbor would think about this. I have been interested for some time in tribal cultures in South America and New Guinea. This tribe, the Piraha, is the most unusual I have come across.

    I'd like to know what you and others think about this. Does their culture prevent them from learning?

    The first is an article giving a brief overview of the tribe. The second (PDF) covers their language and culture.


    "Members of a tiny, isolated Brazilian tribe have no words for numbers other than "one or a few" or "many" and seem to have trouble counting, the researchers reported.

    The Piraha tribespeople are clearly intelligent, so the finding opens questions into how language may affect thinking, the researchers say in this week's issue of the journal Science."

    http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsArticle.jhtml?type=scienceNews&storyID=6023199§ion=news [Broken]

    The Piraha language challenges simplistic application of Hockett’s (1960) nearly universally-accepted “design features of human language”, by showing that some of these design features (interchangeability, displacement and productivity) may be culturally constrained. In particular Piraha culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors. This constraint explains several very surprising features of Piraha grammar and culture:

    1) The absence of creation myths and fiction
    2) The simplest kinship system yet documented
    3) The absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting
    4) The absence of color systems
    5) The absence of embedding in the grammar
    6) The absence of “relative tenses”
    7) The borrowing of its entire pronoun inventory from Tupi
    8) The fact that the Piraha are monolingual after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv
    9) The absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past
    10) The absence of drawing or other art and one of the simplest material cultures yet documented
    11) The absence of any terms for quantification, e.g. “all”, “each”, “every”, “most”, “some”, etc…

    http://lings.ln.man.ac.uk/Info/staff/DE/cultgram.pdf [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 23, 2004 #2


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    Dearly Missed

    At your suggestion I read the 52-page cultgram article by
    Dan Everett, which I would urge anyone who has the time to read.

    I personally have never read a stranger account of anthropological
    fieldwork, or ever heard of a culture/language so alien.

    http://lings.ln.man.ac.uk/Info/staff/DE/cultgram.pdf [Broken]

    after reading Everett's own account of the years he and his wife Keren (and their 3 children) spent living with these people (and even trying to teach them things like reading writing and counting) I found the brief Reuters report pale by comparison:
    http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsArticle.jhtml?type=scienceNews&storyID=6023199§ion=news [Broken]

    It was like going back a million years and talking with Lucy

    Dan and Keren Everett have ridden the time machine.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  4. Aug 23, 2004 #3


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    Presumably the Piraha are (or were) quite successful in their environment - do any of the materials mention how long they've been there as a group? It obviously can't be more than ~13,000 years.

    Everett is an anthropologist, not an ethnobotanist, so presumably couldn't assess the depth and sophistication of the Piraha's knowledge and understanding of the local flora. IIRC, all (most?) hunter-gatherer groups who've been studied by ethnobotanists have shown - to us - astonishingly rich understanding of their local flora. The extent of the Piraha's capabilities might be an easy way to test hitssquad's idea (unless, of course, such rich botanical understanding can be easily acquired by people with low IQ).

    Evo, have you come across the Fayu of New Guinea in your reading?
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