Language as Superstructure: How the Pirahã’s Linguistic Quirks Reflect Diverging Paths

Natalie Tan – Singapore

The Pirahã language, native to a tribe residing deep in the Amazonian forest, does not have a methodology to describe the passage of time. An overview of the Pirahã’s way of life gives us a profound insight into the ways that political and economic systems can affect human lives and their impacts in our every interaction.

The Pirahã Tribe has resided on the banks of the Maici River—situated between the Brazilian cities Manaus and Porto Velho—for the entirety of all 420 tribespeople’s living memory. The Pirahã’s memory bank, however, does not count in years, months, or even days, but instead in incidences, all from personal experience. In fact, beyond their own empirical observations during their lifetimes, the Pirahã have no history at all.

Before continuing, it is imperative to note that the Pirahã are sharply dissimilar to the residents of the United States or any other Western capitalist countries, who regard coordination in labor, demarcated ends and beginnings, and the heralding of historical items as essential components of their national identity. Western capitalism exploded due to European colonization of unknowing peoples in pursuit of natural resources, misguided attempts to convert indigenous people to the “righteous” path, and an unbridled, Enlightenment-bred egoism. As such, before passing any value judgment on the Pirahã people—positive or negative—based on these limited observations, before barging into their isolated existence, before making any well-intentioned interference in their society’s institutions and customs, we must first leave our impulsive, neocolonial lens at the door.

We live in societies open to development, technology, and twenty-first-century capitalism; the Pirahã do not, making them as isolated and alien as any group of humans can be from another. They practice what experts have described as “primitive communism,” living without social hierarchies or formal leaders and staunchly resisting the idea of coercion. Their culture revolves around the tenet of living “here and now.”

As a result, the Pirahã language lacks any indication of the passage of time.

They have no numbers; instead, they use terms for ‘a few’ or ‘many.’ Names are considered unimportant, and often people do not even know all of their grandparents’ names. They consider creation myths to be unimportant, as “Everything is the same, things always are.” Daniel Everett—a professor of linguistics, former Christian missionary to, and now a friend of the Pirahã—tried to introduce them to his belief system, but the Pirahã lost any interest in Jesus when they learned that Everett had never met him.

But the Pirahã’s lack of a structured temporal system manifests itself in even more subtle ways: their language is unique in that it is posited to be the only one in the world that does not use subordinate clauses.

In layman’s terms, a subordinate clause is a ‘when’ clause; for instance, instead of saying “When I finish working, I will come over,” a Pirahã would say, “I finish working. I come over.” This structure does not suggest that the Pirahã people are primitive or simple in their cognitive function; their language is a reflection of their sparse way of life, down to the fact that it can be whistled so hunters can effectively communicate when stalking their prey.

In contrast, the languages of developed countries (most notably English) hold the concept of time as one of the central foci of daily interaction. According to Professor Lera Boroditsky of the Stanford Psychology Department, “[t]he word ‘time’ is the most frequent noun in the English language, with other temporal words like ‘day’ and ‘year’ also ranking in the top 10.” The idea that time exists as a linear, measurable lens through which to evaluate, plan, and quantify our experiences is hammered into our brains from the moment we are born. Take birthdays, for instance, or the recommendation of sleeping 8-10 hours a night, or even advertisements using paranoia about aging to sell cosmetics. The central question that arises from the differences between the Pirahã language and other languages is this: where does the concept of systematic time come from?

The evolution of the Western understanding of time stems from the development of agriculture. Farmers needed a way to keep track of variables like rain, snow, winds, and droughts; thus, dry seasons, monsoons, and later the idea of the four seasons became common parlance for the feudal serf and subject classes. Out of agrarian Mesopotamia came the lunar calendar, which accounted for many phenomena specific to farming. People began to cordon off a set day-night cycle to make up lunar months, which in turn made up solar years, based on seasons. By the Industrial Revolution, the day was a strictly cemented unit of time. To maximise potential output, the capitalist factory owners (unbound by modern concepts like workers’ rights and unionisation) implemented a “sun up to sun down” work day that usually ranged from 10-16 hours. Movements for more reasonable working conditions birthed the campaign for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” which served as a catalyst for products like daily planners and schedules. Today, hourly schedules are so commonplace in the corporate sphere, universities’ organization, and even social life, that all major electronic devices have some timekeeping apparatus incorporated in them.

The divergence in economic and social systems between the Amazonian Pirahã tribe and Western capitalist nations is, of course, just one of many factors in the differences of development of our respective societies. However, it is a significant variable to account for and indicates that lifestyle and philosophy are reflected in language. The Pirahã people, who forage for game and edible plants to sustain themselves, have no art or cultural relics, and they do not keep records of births or deaths in their tribe. Moreover, they have no interest in technological ‘wonders’ (as Westerners call them), and pay little to no attention to the vastly different and dynamic world around them. The Pirahã people have no interest in languages other than their own, remaining monolingual and referring to all other tongues with the pejorative term “crooked head.” In a society where some of us cannot decide where to eat without first consulting seven different opinions on the restaurant and use five different internet browsers in one day, we could all take a leaf from the Pirahã’s forest and live according to our own experiences.