Other Words They Lack

Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

 (T)he Pirahã, a small group of hunter-gatherers who live deep in the Amazon rain forest, seem like some fantastical creation of Jorge Luis Borges. Their relationship to numbers is: They don’t have one. The language they speak has no precise number words, not even “one” or “two.” —New York Times

In my own recent travels deep in the Amazon rain forest I, too, ran across the Pirahã. Even though I studied them for just a few minutes, I marveled at how they’re able to get by without certain words and phrases—even entire concepts—that, to us, are indispensable. For instance…

Hello. Apparently the Pirahã have no way of returning a visitor’s greeting, even when the visitor makes it plain that all he is trying to do is say “hi.” On a related note, it turns out that they consider waving an insult.

Selfie. Perhaps it’s not surprising that an isolated, primitive group wouldn’t have a word to describe a photo taken of one’s self with one’s own phone. What is surprising is that they couldn’t seem to grasp the idea even when a visitor showed them his phone and pantomimed the act, repeatedly, wearing a huge smile. Nor even when he grabbed one of their children and drew her close for a demonstration.

Friend. Seriously, how can anyone fail to grasp friend? If not from the word itself being repeated, louder each time, then from the warmth of a visitor’s lingering embrace? No wonder these guys are so isolated.

Sheesh. Without this word, or its equivalent, the Pirahã seem to have trouble comprehending exasperation—or, for that matter, expressing their own. This manifests itself as agitation and shoving.

Sorry. If there is a Pirahã word that expresses remorse or regret, I couldn't find it. Believe me, I tried.

Time out. If you thought the “using your hands to form a T” gesture was a cultural universal meaning, “Hey, guys, let’s all take a break,” boy, were you wrong. To the Pirahã, it is interpreted as hostile and a challenge.

Harm. As in, “I meant no harm,” a phrase for which there is no equivalent in the Pirahã’s native tongue. Holding up your hands, palms outward in a “nothing up my sleeves” sort of way, does not help.

Sleeves. It only occurred to me later that, duh, of course the “nothing up my sleeves” move meant nothing to the Pirahã, who don’t wear shirts in the first place and even if they did they would probably be short-sleeved. Also filthy.

Please stop. The Pirahã apparently have no concept of abstract ideas like stop. They will cease, say, beating a visitor as he lies curled up on the ground only when they’re too tired to continue or the visitor feigns death, whichever comes first.

I have a family. It became obvious, as their blows rained down, that the Pirahã also have no concept of family, or of pity or mercy. It remains unclear whether they have a word for blood, though the sight of it does not faze them.

My short, fascinating time with the Pirahã ended when I lost consciousness, which they probably also do not have a word for, and they wandered off.

When I came to, my watch told me I’d been out for three hours. Not that that would mean anything to the Pirahã. Morons.