Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã
Everett (Daniel)
Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 46, No. 4 (August/October 2005), pp. 621-646
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. The Pirahã language challenges simplistic application of Hockett’s nearly universally accepted design features of human language by showing that some of these features (interchangeability, displacement, and productivity) may be culturally constrained. In particular, Pirahã culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors.
  2. This constraint explains a number of very surprising features of Pirahã grammar and culture:
    • the absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting and of any terms for quantification,
    • the absence of color terms,
    • the absence of embedding,
    • the simplest pronoun inventory known,
    • the absence of “relative tenses,”
    • the simplest kinship system yet documented,
    • the absence of creation myths and fiction,
    • the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past,
    • the absence of drawing or other art and
    • one of the simplest material cultures documented, and
    • the fact that the Pirahã are monolingual1 after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv.


Sub-title: "Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language"

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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