Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Living la vida ahora

It's like the good old days, reading a friend's blog and being inspired to riff off something found there...

Via Derek, who found the link at the Blogora, comes this 2007 New Yorker article on the language of the Piraha, a "remote Amazonian tribe." The article is, as Jim Aune commented when posting the link, fascinating on many levels.

The primary focus is on the challenge that the linguist Dan Everett's interpretation of the language poses to Chomsky's notion of universal grammar. What the Piraha language seems to lack is the very thing that Chomsky and his associates have posited as the key feature of human language: recursion, the embedding of one phrase into another. So, rather than saying the equivalent of "The man who lives downstream fell in the river," they would say something like, "The man lives downstream. He fell in the river." Their expressions are what prescriptive grammarians would call simple sentences. There's no sentence combining here.

Going along with this grammatical feature is a kind of radical empiricism. They speak of what they can see or of what someone they know has seen. While all language is abstract, they seem to eschew abstractions that are more than one degree removed from the concrete. Thus, they have no words for colors. Rather, they refer to color by way of simile, but without fixing upon a simile. According to the article, they might describe a red cup as looking like blood, but at another time say that it looks like a certain kind of berry.

They have no mythic origin stories, which makes me wonder if they have no particular religion. When missionaries have translated parts of the Bible into their language (a task that is itself apparently extraordinarily difficult), they have no sense of it as "spiritual." After being read the parable of the prodigal son, for instance, a Piraha speaker asked the reader if he knew this man. When the answer was no, the man showed no interest in the story. If it isn't close to firsthand, what's the point?

They have no art beyond art that momentarily exists to express something new. When an airplane lands, boys make model planes from balsa wood. But they're soon discarded and forgotten.

According to Everett, the linguist, these tendencies away from abstraction are not the result of some sort of cognitive deficiency. If a baby was taken out of the forest and raised in the city, she would be perfectly capable of learning another language and thinking in abstractions. Rather, Everett maintains, the difference is cultural. As a culture, the Piraha simply reject the abstract.

One might say they live in the moment.

And that's what's so fascinating to me. I don't want to fall into a sentimental fallacy here. I don't mean to romanticize the Piraha a la the "Noble Savage" ideology of the nineteenth century.

Rather, I'm fascinated that this kind of radical empiricism is possible, that a culture could create and maintain it for centuries.

In the practice of meditation, the intention is to abandon the conceptual, to "be with what is." It seems as if this whole culture is built on that intention.

Good, bad. That's not the point. It's just that it's possible. That there they are, a group of people who live in the moment. They don't store more than a few days' worth of flour. Theravada monks are not allowed to store food. It's the same principle, basically. It's a renunciation of conceptualization. Full attention is on the now, not on some abstract notion like the future.

So, yeah, fascinating.