– Many say Pirahã is one of the world’s weirdest languages. It is a linguistic enigma that scientists are still trying to crack.
The language’s pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar are all special and very difficult to learn. What is truly special about Pirahã is that the language lacks words for numbers and colors.
It might sound astonishing, but the Pirahãs simply do not need for numbers or to describe colors of any kind.
The language is spoken by only a few hundred members of the Pirahã tribe that live deep in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.
The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world and naturally, also one of the most debated by linguists.
The Pirahã is a whistle language and it is very important to listen to the sound of the voice to understand what is said. Communicating with tones and rhythms is not unknown elsewhere. Whistle languages are by no means uncommon.
For example, Silbo Gomero that is an ancient whistling language used by inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island.
Daniel L. Everett, British ethnologist who has spent a total of seven years with the members of the Pirahã tribe said the language is very difficult to learn.
The Pirahã language has caused a lot of heated debates between linguists, anthropologists and cognitive researchers. Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Steven Pinker of Harvard University, two of the most influential theorists on the subject, are still arguing over what it means for the study of human language that the Pirahãs don’t use subordinate clauses.
The Pirahã use only three pronouns. They hardly use any words associated with time and past tense verb conjugations don’t exist.
Another interesting aspect is that the Pirahãs do not have any words for colors and they don’t describe any of them in their language.
Equally perplexing is that the Pirahãs have no need for numbers. During the time Everett spent with them, he never once heard words like “all,” “every,” and “more” from the Pirahãs. There is one word, “hói,” which does come close to the numeral 1. But it can also mean “small” or describe a relatively small amount, like two small fish as opposed to one big fish, for example.
Perhaps one of the reasons why they don’t need numbers is because their population is very small. There are only about 350 members of the Pirahã tribe. They are also not engaged in trading and do not have to count anything like we do.
Scientists are eager to solve the enigma of the Pirahã language before it becomes extinct.