Daniel Everett was a missionary who was ready to devote his life to the Pirahãs, a small tribe of the Amazonian Indians in central Brazil. He moved all the way (including his wife and two young kids) to the Amazon jungle to learn their unique language and culture, aim to translate the Bible and convert them eventually. But as he joked - “I am a happy failure” - after decades of hard work, he was only able to “convert” one person - himself - from a Christian to atheist.
I read the most of the book this April in Karuizawa when I was carrying on my Writing Spree activity. Really enjoyed it, it was like I was in the Amazon jungle and experienced an extrordinary life myself.
The Pirahã people usually only posses one gym short pants, not even a permanent houses of their own, yet they’re the happiest people in the world according to an MIT study. Take a simple look and see how often they laugh and smile a day, it easily beat any other societies or countries in the world.
“You’ve gotta get ‘em lost before you can get ‘em saved,” says Dr. Curtis Mitchell, the author’s evangelism professor at Biola University. But the Pirahã people are not lost at all! This all made his mission impossible to accomplish - “how would you convince a happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior?”
He once asked the Pirahãs if they knew why he was there in his early days.
“You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.”
In the book it mentioned that there were other tribes in the same area were much fond of the Western goods and culture that they adapted to it and eventually lost their own languages. This is not the case for Pirahã.
There is a hidden beauty in their seemingly simple yet sophisticated lifestyle, like a diamond in the mud.
What drew my attention first was how the author performed his linguistic field research and was able to uncover the uniqueness of the Pirahã language and culture.
Here are some of the characteristics in the Pirahã language:
No counting system.
No color terms.
Don’t generalize or abstract.
No word for “worry.”
No left or right.
No police, courts, chiefs, or other kinds of authority figures. They are mostly by tradition egalitarian, free of the influence of any leaders. “Don’t tell us what to do, how to live,” is the norm.
No concept of a supreme spirit or god.
The word “son” literally means “to come” or “the one that came.”
And “friend” means “to be touching” - someone you touch affectionately, and “enemy” means “to cause to come together.”
They prefer hardship. They perceive overweight as “you take more than you need.” I feel ashamed as I touch my round belly now…
They do not talk about unexperienced events, such as long past or far future events, or fictional topics. So there are no oral history or myth about where they are from or who “created” them.
Pirahãs don’t store food, they don’t plan more than one day at a time, they don’t talk about the distant future or the distant past - they seem to focus on now, on their immediate experience.
There is no word for “great-grandparents” as they can’t live long enough to “witness” their grandparents. And since they don’t talk about long past events or figures, there is no word in the language to refer to that ancestor.
Check out this conversation:
The Pirahã men then asked, “Hey Dan, what does Jesus look like? Is he dark like us or light like you?”
I said, “Well, I have never actually seen him. He lived a long time ago. But I do have his words.”
“Well, Dan, how do you have his words if you have never heard him or seen him?”
The value seemed to be to limit most talk to what you had seen or heard from an eyewitness. To elaborate that, it means the Pirahãs believe only what they see. Sometimes they also believe in things that someone else has told them, so long as that person has personally witnessed what he or she is reporting.
The grammar is also accustomed to that culture. For example, when they say “John went finishing [suffix],” there could be 16 suffixes to the verb and 3 suffixes are the most important ones to indicate the source of the evidence.
a) John went finishing, and I saw it.
b) John went finishing, and I heard about it.
b) John went finishing, and I deduced from the local evidence.
This may sound absurd at first, but let’s think about it, this probably is why they don’t need a leader because everyone is responsible for himself/herself, including little children - “little” as in our views.
There is no baby talk. They believe all members of the society are equal and thus “children” should not be treated any differently from adults. Everyone has responsibility for the community and everyone is cared for by the community. That means a 4-year old would work their shares to contribute, and could also share alcohol with adults.
Until reading the book, I had no concrete idea of what would be the exact consequence of losing a minority language that is only spoken by a few hundreds of people in the entire world. Nothing sums it up by this paragraph, I’ll just quote them:
A language is a repository of specialized cultural experiences. When a language is lost, we lose the knowledge of that language’s words and grammar. Such knowledge can never be recovered if the language has not been studied or recorded. Not all of this knowledge is of immediate practical benefit, of course, but all of it is vital in teaching us different ways of thinking about life, of approaching our day-to-day existence on planet Earth.
Every language and culture pair shows us something unique about the way that one subset of our species has evolved to deal with the world around it. Each people solves linguistic, psychological, social, and cultural problems in different ways. When a language dies without documentation, we lose a piece of the puzzle of the origin of human language. But perhaps more important, humanity loses an example of how to live, of how to survive in the world around us.
Page 276 - 277
The way that Pirahãs are living, some of their views and cultures may seem very counter-intuitive, however, they provide us a version of how we, our species, could live differently. A running example. It becomes even more precious when a good amount of our world emphasize more and more on a narrowed view of chasing next big wave, outrunning your opponents, and ever-expanding but never satisfying.
Whose version is more primitive or sophisticated? Find out more in the book.
There is also a short video from the author, Daniel Everett, on this topic. If you’ve made it this far, go check it out :)
Chinese is my native language. Like most native speakers of their languages, I rarely ponder on the words of the literal meaning but take them granted; we already know the meaning and how to use them, right? That’s why I was so fascinated when, after speaking Chinese for about 30 years, I realized there are two words to say “the future” in Chinese: 将来 and 未来.
They’re identical in the dictionary, both can be translated to “the future”, but if we take apart the two-character-combination word, as every character has its meaning in Chinese, and examine the literal meaning of each character, we got a different explanation: 将来 - (the future that) will come and 未来 - (the future that) hasn’t come.
Isn’t it amazing?! Suddenly I had this urge to go back and analyze how I have been using them , do I make a clear distinction between what kind of future I refer to?
For all the information that I could collect from my knowledge, experiences, friends’ comments, and the online dictionaries, I made my draft conclusion. In practice, the will-come-future is mostly used to express “near future,” and the has-not-come-future as “far future” or “future in general.” In some cases, they are even interchangeable.
(Note that Japanese also use the same Chinese characters to represent the future, and they convey the very similar meaning and nuance, but I won’t go deeper in this post and will keep the discussions within the scope of Chinese.)
Let’s see some examples:
1) “No one can predict the future.”
2) “Does Ready Player One reveal the future of VR?”
3) “You would get it when you become a parent in the future.”
4) “When she grows up (in the future), I’ll give her the best education I can offer.”
An observation I’ve made about the usage of 将来, the will-come-future is that it’s especially used when we talk about the future of someone very close to this, like a family member, your best friend, etc. Indeed, the 3) example was actually what my mom told me a few years ago when we were talking about parenting, and 4) was from my best friend who was talking about his newborn baby girl.
I know such usage can be well explained by the simple rule of “near future” - how near or far that future is from us. But I can’t help making a hypothesis that, even it is perhaps subtle to the speaker and the listener, wouldn’t we use it to express the belief or longing or hope or fear of that specific future, the one we want to witness and be part of it? So maybe I can tweak the examples with the literal meaning of the word, and see how that feels like.
“You would get it when you become a parent in the future (and that day will come).”
“When she grows up, (and she will), I’ll give her the best education I can offer.”
It could be that I was just overthinking, in reality, the distinction of the two words could be vague. But I want to believe what I see from the words and will keep the notes from now on. Isn’t it beautiful to have this special word for our future?
There’s one activity that I’ve been carrying on for almost 5 years now, that is to answer one question every day on my Q&A a Day, 5-year Journal. The questions vary from something as simple as “What did you have for lunch today?” to as philosophical as “What makes you happy?” I found it the easiest, if not laziest, way to keep a journal. I’m reaching 5th year now.
One night when my wife and I tried to answer it, I was fascinated by our completely opposite response of it — “What’s the new word you learned recently?” She couldn’t come up with one, I couldn’t come up with just one. She is native in both Japanese and English, I’m neither.
Every day I encounter words I don’t know. There’s hardly a day I could go by without marking anything on the book I’m reading. Even when watching TV shows on Netflix, I would have a notebook (or any paper like receipts of lunch in my pocket) at hands to note down the words or the timestamps so I can look them up later.
This linguistic journey isn’t always that smooth, there are rainy seasons. When I saw my wife flipped through a novel during a weekend while the same book took me about 2 weeks to finish, there was a taste of frustration, to be honest.
So why am I doing this - learning new words and writing in English while I could get by every day just fine? There would be no perceivable setbacks in my professional or personal life. When I started my Writing Spree April a few days ago, I stumbled on this question myself.
I remember how it was like in the early days. Though I had the English lessons during my school years, much like how everybody treated the second language at school, I passed the tests and then forgot about it - I had no desire or need of practicing it. It was until I joined my current company that I started to relearn English, roughly 7 years ago.
Below is what it was like when I tried to read Cooking Solves Everything by Mark Bittman and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
The 2 books were recommended in the company at that time. I bought them on Kindle. It was tough. I rarely went through a page without colorful marks. I’m glad now I recognize most of them, but still not all.
As the time of writing, I’m reading the book Don’t sleep, there are snakes by Daniel L. Everett. Over the years I’ve changed intentionally to physical books, but what remain unchanged is the “splash patterns.”
Judging by the numbers of marks, things don’t seem to be that different than 6 years ago. 😅 (and I’m too embarrassed to share aphoto of my wife correcting my writing - full of red marks on words, grammar, punctuations, etc. Her “writings” were more than mine, it was bloddy, you can imagine.)
Putting them together makes me even sadder as if no progress were made. I felt defeated. I couldn’t help but wonder:
Would there be a day that I don’t need to have a dictionary (app) around?
Why am I enforcing this hardship on myself?
Would there be an end?
Among all the reasons I could come up with — a way to see the world differently; explore different cultures; English is the worldwide common language; entertainment value (thanks to Holywood) — the very core of it probably is that I’ve found my voice in the language itself. A very different kind of “sound” than thinking in my mother tongue Chinese, as if I’ve found a hidden passport with new identity in the drawer that could fly me to a freeland.
Worth to mention that although I’m a Chinese Korean - I had been learning Korean from elementary school to high school and after that I once even had a partime job as a Korean-to-Chinese translator for 2 years - I never found my voice from it. Amazingly, it was familiar and foreign at the same time.
But I seem to enjoy the brand new encounter with English this time. I noticed there are times that it would be the dominant language in my mind. This kind of session usually comes after I embody myself in an English book or movie, also as of this writing. I love this narrative. It’s soothing, calm, and reflective.
It helps me classify my past traumatic stories - family conflicts, romantic relationships, identity issues. Because those events were recorded in Chinese as they occured, it was too violent, too emotional, or too embarrassed to look back and analyze them. The native language seemed to have a way too strong shock that would scare me away. But examing them with a different language, especially one that I have limited but handful enough vocabularies, helps me remapping those past dots into coordinations from a different perspective, from a relatively far distant where I feel safe and secure. This handicap works in my favor.
As of writing this post, it also forces me to think deeply and differently on this subject, probably I’m the one who gets most excited about this discovery than any of my readers (sorry!), and I have a good hunch that I’ll revisit it in the future when I get more insights of it.
Back to the question - would there be a day that I don’t need to have a dictionary? Nope. That day won’t come, and perhaps I don’t want it to come either - wouldn’t that be boring if I’ve mastered every single word? How can I answer the question in my 5-year diary then!? But seriously, much like the universe, knowing there will be unknowns means the adventure would never stop, so as the fun of it.
Bonus tip: as any language learners, we’ve got a unique advantage over others - while they might feel guilty or time-wasted after spending hours on Netflix, we could always claim it as our learning session, right? 😉