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Amazon tribe proves that language can restrict one's ability to think

from the stranger-than-fiction dept.

If you think BYU's "bubble" culture is bizarre, check out this Globe and Mail story about the Piraha tribe of Brazil:

A study appearing today in the journal Science reports that the hunter-gatherers seem to be the only group of humans known to have no concept of numbering and counting.

Besides living a numberless life ... the Piraha are the only people known to have no distinct words for colours.

They have no written language, and no collective memory going back more than two generations. They don't sleep for more than two hours at a time during the night or day.

Even when food is available, they frequently starve themselves and their children.

The article goes on to talk about how a limited ... language affects their reasoning abilities:

When faced with a line of batteries and asked to duplicate the number they saw, the men could not get beyond two or three before starting to make mistakes.

They had difficulty drawing straight lines to copy a number of lines they were presented with. They couldn't remember which of two boxes had more or less fish symbols on it, even when they were about to be rewarded for their knowledge.

This sounds believable to me. Have you ever learned a new word which helped you grasp an abstract concept? I remember learning the word ironic as a kid and being relieved that other people noticed irony as well--that I wasn't just imagining it. The word served as a conceptual bookmark, allowing me to come back to that idea at any time without having to re-think my way there. In conversation it gave me a way of referring to the concept without repeatedly having to describe it in detail.

(Yeah ... so I hope this post isn't getting overly nerdy ... Are you guys with me?)

Anyway, the story goes on to say that:

Linguists and anthropologists ... are flabbergasted by the tribe's strangeness, particularly since the Piraha have not lived in total isolation.

[Apparently] the Piraha see themselves as intrinsically different from, and better than, the people around them; everything they do is to prevent them from being like anyone else or being absorbed into the wider world. One of the ways they do this is by not abstracting anything: numbers, colours, or future events.

This would explain how they've clung to their backward ways, in spite of having contact with outsiders for the last 200 years.

Somehow, I just find this fascinating.

I wonder how much of a corollary this has with strange pockets of behavior I see around campus ... hmmm ...

how bizarro.

Somehow this whole story just reminds me of Dudley in The Royal Tennenbaums... or of a Sienfeld episode...