College College Society and the World TSS

A Tribe Without Time

Time is one of the most stable and reliable foundations of human society.  Everything in our modern society relies on it, and we can definitely say that time is something we have all blamed, cherished, and been thankful for.  Despite the concept of time being a driving force behind our lives today, it is not a concept in the lives of the Pirahã people.

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The Pirahã are an indigenous people of Brazil.  Their language has intrigued linguists since it was first studied in 1977 by Daniel Everett, an American linguist and now professor.  A missionary, he traveled to Brazil in an attempt to spread Christianity to the Pirahã.  He returned to his home questioning his religious faith, and eventually became an atheist.  But what is it about this language and these people’s culture that have completely changed the views of a devout Christian and academic linguists?

To put it simply, the language has no concept of time or numbers.  For anyone, let alone, let alone linguists, this is unimaginable.  The Pirahã language consists of only eight consonants and three vowels, and as a result, speakers can whistle, sing, and even hum their conversations.  But because of the language’s limitations, they do not have a past tense for any of their words.  They also do not use subordinate clauses. (1)

In other words, a sentence such as “When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you,” would be said as “I finish eating, I speak with you.”  The core of the Pirahã tribe is to live in the moment; what better way to truly live by this than to not even have a word to describe anything other than the present?  For the tribe, the past ceases to exist. They do not even have a creation myth, unlike other tribes.  Living in the moment is truly only possible if one does not dwell on the past.

What is truly interesting to scientists, however, is the concept of recursion. Recursion is crucial to linguists because it is at the core of grammar and languages.  It is defined as the repeated and sequential use of a specific linguistic element or grammatical structure, or even the thought of combining two different thoughts into one sentence.  As seen in the example above, the sentence that would have been spoken by the Pirahã is broken up into two simpler ones.  Without recursion, subordinate clauses would not exist.  These clauses are responsible for translating recursion into grammar that humans can understand.

Recursion has been long thought to be the defining and most unique part of human language, but if the Pirahã can communicate fluently with each other without it, can recursion really be considered unique to a language system?  This is a concept that is unbelievable to some linguists.  The fact that there is only one person, Daniel Everett, who speaks Pirahã fluently enough to translate it into English also poses another problem.

With the emergence of fields such as computational linguistics, learning about language structures of indigenous people also grows in importance.  The fact that the language of a tribe of only around 800 individuals can cause chaos in the entire linguistics community is astounding.  More research about languages like Pirahã can help scientists and linguists learn more about the psychology of languages, and how they impact your growth and mind.


  1. Everett, Daniel (2005). “Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: Another look at the design features of human language” (PDF). Current Anthropology, 46 (4): 621–46. doi:10.1086/431525

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