What language do Brazilian speak?
Pirahã people on the Maici River in Amazonas, Brazil.
Photo courtesy of Tony Muricy.
The Pirahã are an indigenous people, numbering around 700, living along the banks of the Maici River in the jungle of northwest Brazil. Their language, also called Pirahã, is so unusual in so many ways that it was profiled in 2007 in a 12, 000-word piece in the New Yorker by John Colapinto, who wrote:Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.
Among Pirahã's many peculiarities is an almost complete lack of numeracy, an extremely rare linguistic trait of which there are only a few documented cases. The language contains no words at all for discrete numbers and only three that approximate some notion of quantity—hói, a "small size or amount, " hoí, a "somewhat larger size or amount, " and baágiso, which can mean either to "cause to come together" or "a bunch."
With no way to express exact integers, the obvious question is: How do the Pirahã count? More pragmatically, how do they ask for two of something instead of just one? The answer—according to some of the more recent research on anumeracy, published by anthropological linguist Caleb Everett in the journal Cognitive Science—suggests, almost inconceivably, that they don't.
Everett, the son of Christian missionaries turned linguists, lived on and off with the Pirahã during his early childhood. His parents, he told me, speak Pirahã as fluently as any Westerners ever have, though for a non-native speaker to master the language is a near impossibility. A couple of years ago, Everett (whose father was featured in the New Yorker piece) traveled back to the Pirahã villages to run a few very simple experiments.