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LINGUISTIX&LOGIK, Tony Marmo's blog
Tuesday, 23 November 2004

Topic: Notes on Pirah?

Note #3

Assume that in a hypothetical language Pop there is a three word basic vocabulary for three sizes, magnitudes, greatnesses or points of a very generic scale:

Wow... Large (L)
Okay... Medium (m)
Hun... Small (s)

Is it possible to derive a numeric system from such small vocabulary? The answer is yeas, it could be noted as a base 3 system, through the following convention:


Accordingly, the numbers or numerals of the Pop linguistic community would look like the examples below:

Decimal to base 3 system:
4... 11
5... 12
6... 20
7... 21
8... 22
9... 100
50... 1212
51... 1220
100... 10201
987... 1100120

Now assume that these figures are `read' with the basic morphemes wow, okay and hun, provided that by some phonological factors okay+wow is uttered okwow, okay+hun is okun and wow+okay is wakay, and any sequence of ww becomes hw. Then, one gets the following numerals:

4... okayokay
5... okwow
6... wowhun
7... wakay
8... wohwow
9... okunhun
50... okwowokwow
51... okwohwowhun
100... okunwowhunokay
987... okayokunhunokwowhun

So, mathematically speaking, there is no sound reason to conclude that, by having only a vocabulary for three basic greatnesses, the users of a language like Pop lack numbers or the concept of counting. The Pop speaking Pople would do fine with such system.

However, the users of the aforementioned base 3 system would find any decimal system as unusual, useless and unintelligible to them as persons from a decimal culture would find the system of the Pop speaking people too foreign and difficult.

Posted by Tony Marmo at 00:01 GMT
Updated: Monday, 22 November 2004 08:41 GMT
Thursday, 2 September 2004

Topic: Notes on Pirah?

Note #2


Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirah?: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language

Page 10

However, there are two words, usually occurring in reference to an amount eaten or desired, which by their closest translation equivalents, 'whole' b?aiso and 'part' g?i?i might seem to be quantifiers:
(19) a. t?ob?hai hi b? -a -i -so kohoai-s?og -ab -aga?
child 3 touch -causative -connective -nominalizer 'whole' eat -desiderative -stay -thus
'The child wanted/s to eat the whole thing.'
(lit: 'Child muchness/fullness eat is desiring.')
b. t?ob?hai hi g?i -?i kohoai-s?og-ab -aga?
child 3 that -there eat -desiderative 'part' (in the appropriate context) -stay -thus
'The child wanted/s to eat a piece of the thing.'
(lit: 'Child that there eat is desiring.')

In (19) b?aiso and g?i?i are used as nouns. But they can also appear as
postnominal modifiers:
(20) a. t?ob?hai hi pooga?hia? b?aiso kohoai-s?og -ab -aga?
child 3 banana whole eat- desiderative -stay -thus
'The child wanted/s to eat the whole banana.'
(lit: 'Child banana muchness/fullness eat is desiring.')
b. t?ob?hai hi pooga?hia? g?i?i kohoai-s?og-ab -aga?
child 3 banana piece eat -desiderative -stay -thus
'The child wanted/s to eat part of the banana.'
(lit: 'Child banana piece eat is desiring.')

Whether a pair of items are quantifiers or not depends firstly on the theoretic assumptions made. There is no way to say whether b?aiso and g?i?i are real quantifiers or not just by giving examples in a non-theoretic fashion. In any case, it is not uncommon to find words that appear in different positions both as nouns and nominal modifiers. That is a common fact of languages around the world and not any special or unique feature of Pirah?.

Aside from their literal meanings, there are important reasons for not interpreting these two words as quantifiers. First, their Truth Conditions are not equivalent to those of real quantifiers.

This is tricky. A sentence may be true or false in a given situation/world, but it cannot be assumed that speakers will produce only true sentences in a given context. False sentences, which are completely grammatical, may be and often are produced.

For example, consider the contrast in (21) vs. (22):
Context: Someone has just killed an anaconda. Upon seeing it, (21a) below is uttered. Someone takes a piece of it. After the purchase of the remainder, the content of (21a) is reaffirmed as (21b):
(21) a. 7?o?i hi pa?hoa7a? 7iso? b?aiso 7oaboi -ha?
foreigner 3 anaconda skin 'whole' buy -relative certainty
'The foreigner will likely buy the entire anaconda skin.'
b. 7ai? hi b?aiso 7oaob -?h?; hi 7ogi? 7oaob -?h?
affirmative 3 whole buy -complete certainty 3 bigness buy complete certainty
'Yes, he bought the whole thing.'

Now, compare this with the English equivalent, where the same context is
(22) a. STATEMENT: He will likely buy the whole anaconda skin.
b. OCCURRENCE: Piece is removed (in full view of interlocutors).
c. STATEMENT: %He bought the whole anaconda skin.

It simply would be dishonest and a violation of the meaning of 'whole' to utter it
in (22b). But this is not the case in Pirah?, (21b).
Page 11

However in (21b) the term b?aiso is not used alone. 7ogi?, he term for bigness, as Everett calls it, is present as well. This suggests that a literal translation of (21b) would be Yes, he bought a majority of the whole thing, regardless of whether the sentence is true or false in the context where it is uttered. The expression a majority of the whole exists in English and other languages and means a part (the larger part) and not the whole.

Posted by Tony Marmo at 14:29 BST
Updated: Thursday, 2 September 2004 14:31 BST
Wednesday, 1 September 2004

Topic: Notes on Pirah?
As suggested by RdR and others, I shall be writing small notes on Daniel Everett's work, i.e., about the analyses he makes of Pirah? data.

Note #1


Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirah?: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language

page 7

Some examples which show how Pirah? expresses what in other cultures would
be numerical concepts:
(10) a. t? 7?t?i7isi h?i hii 7aba7??gio 7oogabaga?
1 fish small pred. only want
'I only want {one/a couple/a small} fish.'
(NB: This could not be used to express a desire for one fish that was very large, except as a joke.)

Interesting. In Portuguese we may have parallel examples:

(10') a. Eu quero um pouco de peixe.

(10') may be translated as I want some fish or a little bit of fish. Indeed (10') may be interpreted as:

I want a small fish.
I want only one fish.
I want a small quantities of fish.
I want only a piece of a fish.

Of course, (10') cannot be used in the context where the speaker wants one very large fish.

Page 8

Interestingly, in spite of its lack of number and numerals, Pirah? superficially
appears to have a count vs. mass distinction:
(12) a. 7ao?i 7aa?b?i 7ao7aag? 7o? kapi?7io
foreigner many exist jungle other
'There are many foreigners in another jungle.'
b. */? 7ao?i 7apag? 7ao7aag? 7o? kapi?7io
foreigner much exist jungle other
? 'There are much foreigners in another jungle.'
(13) a. 7?ga?si7apag? 7ao7aag? 7o? kapi?7io
manioc meal much exist jungle other
'There is a lot of manioc meal in another jungle.'
b. *7?ga?si 7aa?b?i 7ao7aag? 7o? kapi?7io
manioc mealmany exist jungle other
*'There is many manioc meal in another jungle.'

However, this distinction is more consistently analyzed as the distinction between things that can be individuated and things that cannot, thus independent of the notion of counting.

It is impossible to conclude that some mind has the notion of individuation, but lacks the concept of unity. The sentences about are without any doubt instances of mass versus count nouns. To affirm otherwise is not consistent with the data presented.

Posted by Tony Marmo at 13:30 BST
Updated: Thursday, 2 September 2004 14:33 BST

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