Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Immediacy of the Pirahã Language

The Immediacy of the Pirahã Language

In the depths of the Brazilian Amazon along the Maici River, there lives a group of people called the Pirahã. This tribe of natives live together, surviving as a group of less that 420 people. Some would consider the Pirahã to be a primitive group, but as a whole, their culture has everything they require despite the supposed simplicity of their lives and languages. One linguist, by the name of Daniel Everett, spent some time with them in their home environment, learning about their culture through the analysis of language. The Pirahã have a very interesting way of comprehending their existence. Everything the encounter is very rooted in the present, a concept that Everett calls “The Immediacy of Experience” meaning that everything they encounter is only really important to them for the time they are encountering it. The tribe has a particular word that details this phenomenon, xibipiio. To this group the word can be used in many instances; in essence it means “to go in and out of experience.” It can be used to describe when people leave, when people arrive; however it can also be used to describe the coming and going of aircraft, when it leaves their sight, it is now xibipiio. Even though the plane continues to exist, to them, because it is no longer within their sensory field, it ceases to exist in their world. This concept even translates to their understanding of fire, when a flame flickers, they say it is xibipiio— it is going in and out of experience. This use of the word is exquisite evidence that their language directly correlates to their understanding of their world. They see the world in a very specific, immediate way and their choice of words depicts it in a way that is significant only to them. Their life is so different from that of our own that it may be difficult to understand why they interact with their environment in this way, but the fact of the matter is, it works for them. We may see little benefit to this method of speech but for them, it is all they need, and that is what matters most.


Everett, D. (2005). Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language. Current Anthropology, 46(4), 621-646. doi:10.1086/431525


Salzmann, Z., Stanlaw, J., & Adachi, N. (2015). Language, culture, and society: An introduction to linguistic anthropology (6th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I personally have no difficulty understanding why they interact with their environment this way. This is the way we all actually physically interact with our environment. Despite our words for the past and future, we can never actually exist in the past or the future. The past is just memories of prior existence and the future is projections based on our current existence. We can only actually exist in the present moment. This concept is even more understandable in the context of the environment they live in. As weather patterns are primarily stable and somewhat predictable in terms of wet and dry seasons. This environment lends itself to little need to plan into the distant future for resource procurement. I think the term immediacy of experience is a great way to describe this concept. I really enjoyed your post and discussion lead.