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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No One

posted by on July 16 at 8:57 AM

Why jungle life is even more idiotic than rural life:

ScienceDaily (July 15, 2008) — An Amazonian language with only 300 speakers has no word to express the concept of “one” or any other specific number, according to a new study from an MIT-led team.

The team, led by MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences Edward Gibson, found that members of the Piraha tribe in remote northwestern Brazil use language to express relative quantities such as “some” and “more,” but not precise numbers.

A farmer can at least count his pigs.

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Judge much?

Posted by DanFan | July 16, 2008 9:09 AM

Feeling insecure?

Posted by Joe M | July 16, 2008 9:13 AM

Those people have a number of interesting linguistic and anthropological traits:

- the fewest phonemes of any language
- no distinct concept of family beyond sister/brother
- no concept of history, even fictional
- For them, the only concept of "real" or "existing" is that which is seen or directly experienced. It's been said that if one were to board a canoe in front of a Pirahã and float down the river, you would, to their minds, cease to exist the moment the canoe were out of sight.

Posted by Nick | July 16, 2008 9:13 AM

Oh ffs. 'idiotic' - seriously?

Posted by rtw | July 16, 2008 9:15 AM

Are you really mocking a tribe that lives in the jungle for being primitive? Is this a product of the fact that the books you read all seem to date from the 19th century, when that sort of thing was still in fashion?

Posted by flamingbanjo | July 16, 2008 9:16 AM

So rural life is "idiotic"? I'm quite sure you'd be shocked at just how smart you have to be to run a farm -- which contributes a whole lot more to the world than your inane ruminations on philosophy, architecture and your pitiful search for hot women on the web.

Posted by bigyaz | July 16, 2008 9:19 AM

Charles, do you grow all of your own food? If not, I'm pretty sure a farmer played a role somehow. Most farmers can do more than count their pigs, and their business model is slightly more complex than the lyrics to "Old MacDonald".

I'm almost certain they don't have the time to sit in front of a computer all day and pull shit out of their asses about architecture and marxist philosophy.

Posted by Joe M | July 16, 2008 9:25 AM

@6 - Jinx, buy me a coke!

Posted by Joe M | July 16, 2008 9:29 AM

@3, the horror!

Posted by charles mudede | July 16, 2008 9:37 AM

What would be the point of precision anyway? Inventory is the harbinger of mercantilism ("I must always know how much I have in order to trade for something else."), which brings after that capitalism ("I must always know how much I have, so that I may accumulate more.")

The tribal member surveys his livestock. "Ah, I see I have some pigs. Better than no pigs. Excellent, I can still feed my kin."

Posted by laterite | July 16, 2008 9:39 AM

So I guess everyone who lives in a rural area is a farmer, just like everyone who lives in an inner city is a trigger-happy thug. Stereotypes are fun!

Posted by Georgia Guy | July 16, 2008 9:41 AM

Right on, Charles.

Posted by elenchos | July 16, 2008 9:50 AM

Are these the same people who linguists were all excited about because they apparently had no recursion?
My ethnobotany prof told me about some groups in the Andes who conceptualize god in the difference between high and low. How do you understand something like that unless you were raised in the same environment? You cannot. Just like you cannot understand why (or if, really) they actually have no concept of one, two, three.

Posted by ams | July 16, 2008 9:51 AM

I'll leave Charles's idiotic commentary to the side for the moment. The thing that strikes me is that this is a good example of misleading popular science articles, presenting something as an exciting new finding that is actually far from new. The Piraha have been studied extensively by linguist Daniel Everett for decades, and have more recently gained the interest of people like Tecumseh Fitch. The article suggests that Gibson has just recently discovered all of these interesting phenomena such as their lack of a complex number system.

From a linguistic point of view, the most interesting thing about the Piraha is that they seem to lack recursion in their grammar (e.g. a sentence being embedded in another sentence). If this can be proved conclusively, it would throw a wrench into a lot of modern linguistic theory.

Posted by Gabriel | July 16, 2008 9:55 AM

I think it's charming.

Posted by keshmeshi | July 16, 2008 9:56 AM

i would expect charles of all people to appreciate the exsitentialist nature of these people. after all numbers when applied to objects are illusionary. for example, if you have two trees, one an elm the other an oak, can they really be counted as two of the same thing? what is the point of numbering them if they aren't technically two of a kind. perhaps these people have never found use for a concept of the world as definition and classification heavy as our own. they might view all objects as being as truly transitory as they actually are.

Posted by douglas | July 16, 2008 9:56 AM

From an earlier article:

On average, they performed about as well as college students engaged in more complex numerical estimation tasks. Their skill levels were similar to those in pre-linguistic infants, monkeys, birds and rodents ...

Posted by RonK, Seattle | July 16, 2008 9:59 AM

@14- so it was them...
One problem with proving the lack of recursion, I heard, is that only a few people (three maybe) who are not part of the group actually speak the language. Two of them are the linguist husband, and his ex-wife I believe.
When I heard an interview with him other linguists were challenging his claims of "no recursion", and his response was, "well, why don't you go learn the language and prove me wrong". Not a very scientific response, I thought.

Posted by ams | July 16, 2008 10:01 AM

I'll second @6 and @7. My father-in-law runs a large-scale farm, and it's astonishing the combination of mechanical intelligence, business intelligence, and common sense that one person needs to possess to make it all work. Of course, Charles has a very limited idea of what constitutes intelligence.

Posted by Gabriel | July 16, 2008 10:06 AM

If you aren't materialistic you don't need to count things very accurately, *some* and *enough* do quite well.

Posted by inkweary | July 16, 2008 10:10 AM

@18 You're right - Everett and his ex-wife are possibly the only non-members of the tribe to speak the language. And after a few decades of learning Piraha, his ex-wife (sorry, don't remember her name) said that she still had only a rough understanding of the language.

However, there are ways to test whether somebody understands the concept of linguistic recursion without needing to know their native language. There was a New Yorker article on this a couple years back, and it describes the tests that Tecumseh Fitch ran on members of the Piraha tribe.

Posted by Gabriel | July 16, 2008 10:13 AM

Yes obviousl if Charles had been born into this tribe he would have introduced the concept of "one" plus a lot of other psychobabble.

AS to idiocy of rural life-- he is quoting Marx. At at time when rural life meant you worked 12 hours a day and never travelled more than 2 miles from where you were born and the big landowner controlled you and you literally had to get to a city to have any art, diversity, stimulation, educaiton, commerce, etc.

It's not at all like rural life today which is vastly more connected.

So it's kind of idiotic to ignore that.

But once again it's just the snobbery of the avant garde. Tres petite bourgeousie.

Posted by PC | July 16, 2008 10:16 AM

Introduce capitalism to them. Then they'll learn to count. After all, a farmer has to sell those pigs.

Posted by Gitai | July 16, 2008 10:16 AM

Furthering the points of 10 and 20, it's amazing how hypocritical Chuck is being here. You, Charles, rail against the evils of capitalism, but being able to count one's possessions matters more in your guage of intelligence. So since you've proved for the 490823409865673rd time that you lack any ability to contribute meaningful material to this blog or to the Stranger, why again do you still have a job?

It's more impressive that this tribe has survived with stone age technology. You try living in the woods for your entire life, Chuckles.

Posted by Emily | July 16, 2008 10:17 AM

laterite @ 10 -- They don't have pigs. They're hunter-gatherers.

They don't tell stories. They don't remember their grandparents. They believe things are as they always were, even as they rapidly slide toward extinction.

People counted sheep and told fairy tales for tens of thousands of years before plummeting into capitalism ... but it seems the world is full of these very slippery slopes, which you are no doubt wise enough to avoid.

Posted by RonK, Seattle | July 16, 2008 10:21 AM

You're an asshole

Posted by D | July 16, 2008 10:22 AM

I think that if I had actually ever met Charles in person, I might be able to tell when he is being ironic/sarcastic. But, as it is, I sometimes get pulled into an internal "kidding or not kidding" debate, before I realize I don't really care what the answer is.

Posted by Julie | July 16, 2008 10:29 AM


Posted by Bellevue Ave | July 16, 2008 10:32 AM

What an insightful post, Charles. Rather than marvel at the incredible diversity of human culture, the myriad differences in language and expression, at what the existence of this unique language means to our understanding of the development of human language overall, at the ingenuity it takes to survive and live in harmony with one's environment, particularly in the jungle, at the fact that cultures thousands of years old exist in our modern world and give us a window into our own history, you have succinctly reduced it all down to this: "Rural life, stupid. Jungle life, stupider."

There is a very interesting article about Dan Everett and the Piraha in the New Yorker, including this:

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. It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it.

I find that to be quite incredible. But not Charles, no! You blaze into Slog, insecurities (or just incompetency) at full bore, and utter your profound pronouncement on this culture and language, of which you apparently know nothing: "Idiotic." "More idiotic."

Thank you, Charles, THANK YOU, for your valuable and perceptive contribution to the discussion on human culture and language. Where would we be without you?

Posted by rb | July 16, 2008 10:35 AM

Uh, good thing we already know that about the Aborigines, so this isn't even a NEW discovery.

Ugh. This post is so dumb it's making me feel kind of queasy.

Posted by agkagk | July 16, 2008 10:40 AM

Why bother counting when the number may change during the day due to panther attacks?

This is why the Inuit (Innuvut) language has thousands of words for snow and ice - the difference matters to them, and the French have many words for romance and love, but we have few in American English.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 16, 2008 10:57 AM
Posted by ams | July 16, 2008 10:57 AM

@31- I heard on the cbc that that is actually a myth, and that the Inuit do not have significantly more words for "snow" than we do.

Posted by ams | July 16, 2008 11:00 AM

charles is such a little prick. what a waste of a mind...

Posted by tiffany | July 16, 2008 11:02 AM

I think Charles and the little tribes are cute. Not rural americans though. >=[

Posted by girlgerms | July 16, 2008 11:26 AM

@ 34, is this a reference to that old NAACP ad?

Posted by charles mudede | July 16, 2008 12:34 PM

Yeah, because obsessive individualism has done so much for us, Charles. What an ignorant snotty thing to say.

This is the only time I'm going to bother writing what I think whenever I read your posts: get over yourself.

Posted by no he didn't | July 16, 2008 1:05 PM

I'm reading the New Yorker article right now. Fascinating.

Posted by leek | July 16, 2008 1:11 PM

Uh, Charles, this isn't uncommon for folks living on the primitive level. Check out George Gamow's book, "One, Two, Three... Infinity." That's the counting system for lots of groups out there, esp. in the past. Also, the rest of the book is about the universe 'n shit, so you might like it.

And, er, literacy and math didn't become the handy thing pigs the king started tallying up how many sheep you should give him for your tax bill each year. The Smithers to his Burns had to handle all that paperwork (papyrus work...clay tablet work...) "Guns, Germs & Steel", where ya been, Chaz?

Meanwhile, chimps are displaying some incredible short term memory skills. Of course, they've never put any Hegel into their noggins, so the mental tubes work smoothly.

Posted by CP | July 16, 2008 6:27 PM


You're from Zimbabwe, right? If anyone should know a thing or two about one culture looking down upon another, it should be you. Grow the fuck up.

Posted by nolaseatac | July 16, 2008 8:33 PM

Man I hope this post was failed sarcasm but I really doubt this is. This is just blatantly offensive and I see no reason it was posted in the first place.

Posted by Sven | July 16, 2008 10:45 PM

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