A remarkable language from the Amazon

What could arguably be the most scientific language in the world is spoken by a group of around 300 people in a remote river system in Brazil’s Amazon Basin.

The Pirahã people have a distinctive language in which the form of the verb tells how much evidence there is for a statement. One of three different suffixes is added to the verb, depending on whether you heard it at second hand, or deduced it, or saw it with your own eyes.

So if you say Pirahã: ‘John left + suffix A’, that means that someone told you that John had gone. If you say: ‘John left + suffix B’, that means that you worked it out from seeing his canoe away from its usual place. And if you say: ‘John left + suffix C’, then you are affirming that you saw him go yourself.

How many pointless arguments do we all have in the West because we do not distinguish between these three types of situation? Precision about the key issue of evidence is built into every Pirahã statement.

The Pirahã language is quite remarkable in other ways as well. It is unrelated to any other living tongue, and can be whistled, sung, hummed or spoken. It has no words for numbers, colours, left or right, brother or sister. The Pirahã people have no myths, rituals or history.

In other words, says linguistics professor Daniel Everett who has spent thirty years studying them, they shun the past and the future in favour of experiencing each day just as it is. He says that they have consistently rejected all foreign influences and appear to be entirely happy that way.

Everett first met the Pirahã as a Christian missionary exploring the Amazon basin in the 1970s. In the end, they converted him. His story is told in a new documentary, The Grammar of Happiness.