## PirahÃ£ living-in-the-present language

The word that he had long taken to mean "one" (hoi, on a falling tone) is used by the PirahÃ£ to refer, more generally, to "a small size or amount," and the word for "two" (hoi, on a rising tone) is often used to mean "a somewhat larger size or amount."

Light reading from The New Yorker - April 16, 2007 about LtU's favourite amazonian tribe (previously on LtU Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment).

## Comment viewing options

### Is the PirahÃ£ language declarative?

While compound sentences are ignored in PirahÃ£, compound utterances are not -- the paper sites an example:

I saw the dog. The dog was at the beach. A snake bit the dog.

Basically, utterances are held together by stating simple facts. The hearer is left to infer whatever they like, I gather.

The "living in the present" tag is a little misleading for PirahÃ£ -- it does have a simple notion of past, just no cultural support for the notion of time that no one alive has experienced. Basically, the notion of shared cultural memory is rejected in favor of a no-shared state, message-passsing approach to communication of experience.

:-)

### recursion vs iteration?

The full example was:

When I asked Everett if the PirahÃ£ could say, in their language, â€œI saw the dog that was down by the river get bitten by a snake,â€ he said, â€œNo. They would have to say, â€˜I saw the dog. The dog was at the beach. A snake bit the dog.â€™ â€

I'm kind of wondering where the "no" comes in. Yes, they express it differently, but it looks like about the same information is transferred either way. Which makes me wonder if this is just a case of recursion ("say this thing inside that thing") vs iteration ("say this thing after that thing").

Some scholars believe that Everettâ€™s claim that the PirahÃ£ do not use recursion is tantamount to calling them stupid.

That sounds like it'd fit in with some old CS religious wars I seem to recall hearing about.

### Distinct issues

Not commenting on PirahÃ£ for the moment - let me just emphasize that debates about preffered programming style, and even the ability to reason about recursion are quite different from debates about the cognitive capacities required to parse and use recursive grammars. While the irony is appreciated, this distinction is sometimes overlooked by computer scientists in my experience.

### Yes, they express it

Yes, they express it differently, but it looks like about the same information is transferred either way. Which makes me wonder if this is just a case of recursion ("say this thing inside that thing") vs iteration ("say this thing after that thing").

Yup, they convey roughly the same information; the clauses have the same predicates and arguments, playing the same roles in the situations depicted. There's an interesting kink here that takes some linguistics training to notice: the most common theories about the historical development of recursive syntactic constructions develop tell us that they originate as reanalysis of constructions that you here call "iterative." This, however, requires that at some point in time, a good number of these examples be ambiguously interpretable as going either way.

The English gloss in the quote you give isn't very suggestive of how this can happen. For example, English has obligatory subjects in main clauses; in a language where contextually understood subjects and objects do not have obligatory expression, we might be able to say something that we could render impressionistically as: "I saw the dog. Was at the beach. Got bitten by a snake." Once you've seen enough languages of a wide enough variety, when you see something like that, you can easily imagine some of those actually being subordinate clauses.

### Basically, utterances are

Basically, utterances are held together by stating simple facts. The hearer is left to infer whatever they like, I gather.

...and this is semantically no different from if they said "I saw the dog that was down by the river get bitten by a snake." The difference (in this case, at least) is just one of syntactic organization, not of semantics. The fact that the English counterpart to those three putative PirahÃ£ sentences is a single "compound" sentence doesn't mean that the English sentence is stating one single compound fact, whereas the PirahÃ£ one states three "simple" ones.

### The fact that the English

The fact that the English counterpart to those three putative PirahÃ£ sentences is a single "compound" sentence doesn't mean that the English sentence is stating one single compound fact, whereas the PirahÃ£ one states three "simple" ones.

I agree. In fact, the English sentence is stating 5 facts -- the three in the PirahÃ£ sentence and, additionally, that the dog is the same in each case (must be stated once for each of the last two clauses in the PirahÃ£ utterance). The English sentence is thus not really equivalent -- it offers information the PirahÃ£ sentence does not -- and that is because it makes use of facilities for abstraction that the PirahÃ£ do not appear to have. The listener must infer the same-ness of the dog in the PirahÃ£ utterance -- it isn't a grammatical fact like it is in the English rendition.

### You're drawing too strong a

You're drawing too strong a conclusion from an English paraphrase of a PirahÃ£ equivalent of an English sentence that Everett gave to a journalist for a general-interest magazine. We don't know if the actual sequence of sentences that would be used in PirahÃ£ admits of an interpretation where it's a different dog in each sentence.

### Just ignore the PirahÃ£ for

We don't know if the actual sequence of sentences that would be used in PirahÃ£ admits of an interpretation where it's a different dog in each sentence.

In fact, we don't even know if the notion of 'the same dog' is meaningful in PirahÃ£. After all, 'the same dog' is a recursive notion.

### You're misunderstanding the issue.

What's at stake in the debate is whether all languages have recursive syntax. The phrase "the same dog" does not exhibit any syntactic recursion.

(I don't know what you mean by "a recursive notion," either.)

### It's really too bad that the

It's really too bad that the subject line of your previous two posts is about me -- it distracts from your points, which are worth considering. The conversation would be much better served if your posts were fully on topic.

Your post is considerably more meta than either of the subject lines you're complaining about, and doesn't address any part of the subject at hand whereas em's posts are directly discussing your statements about the subject - the subject lines are on topic.

Given that LtUers have been known to explicitly ask people to help debug their conceptual schema and thinking process, there most certainly isn't an expectation that nobody refer to anyone else's apparent thoughts. Nor is it the local standard to divorce thoughts from their thinkers - but in complaining about labelling you're making things an awful lot more about you and how you differ, whether you phrase it that way or in an apparent generality that I'm not convinced holds.

### ...the subject lines are on

...the subject lines are on topic.

They say a little more about me than I would like -- I did not offer to be the topic of conversation.

Given that LtUers have been known to explicitly ask people to help debug their conceptual schema and thinking process, there most certainly isn't an expectation that nobody refer to anyone else's apparent thoughts.

Whatsoever I put into the textbox is on offer for criticism and consideration. That which I don't is not. It is wandering far afield to blast people for what you think they are thinking -- though direct knowledge of a person's situation may excuse it.

Nor is it the local standard to divorce thoughts from their thinkers...

As a thinker, who am I to you? Eleven ASCII characters -- Jason Dusek.

...in complaining about labelling you're making things an awful lot more about you and how you differ, whether you phrase it that way or in an apparent generality that I'm not convinced holds.

I don't understand this part. Are you accusing me of self-righteousness? What generality?

I don't think the messages you objected to were meant as personal insults, or should be interpreted as such.

I think enough was said about this issue, which is tangential to this thread. If you (plural) want to discuss it further, I think this discussion should be moved offline.

### How does one start an out of

How does one start an out of band discussion in LtU? We don't have any private messaging.

### Offline

You can check if the members you want to contact left contact information in their profiles (simply click on the usernames), and contact them via email. You can also post an email address (a temporary one if you want) and ask others to contact you. Finally, you can start a quicktopic discussion.

### For what it's worth, while

For what it's worth, while there's no email address in my profile there is one on my web site which is linked from it.

### The Saga Continues...

...on QuickTopic!

### In reading this story I was

In reading this story I was struck by the fact that the Piraha language seems to move along with time. This is very different from major languages that I know (ie English) which represent time and action from the outside. I sometimes think of this as the difference between ground coordinates and aircraft coordinates in avionics. Aircraft coordinates greatly simplifies aircraft dynamics and I would argue that the Piraha benefit in many ways from this orientation, although it is not for everybody.

This distinction seems to be at the heart of difficulties in representing commonsense knowledge. The problem now seems to be solved after nearly fifty years with the "event calculus". The problem of "commonsense" goes away with "now" coordinates. I have long felt that this distinction can be utilized in a computer language. My idea of how this might look is Lewis. I have posted this before but this is a new link, and a different context. Comments will be appreciated.

Edit: If the above theory is correct, the Piraha would analyze sequences of events by "simulation", playing through the set of actions from start to finish.