Foto: André Toral, 1998

Pirahã

  • Other names
    Mura Pirahã
  • Where they are How many

    AM420 (Funasa, 2010)
  • Linguistic family
    Mura

Language

Apaitsiiso (‘that which comes out of the head’) is the term by which the Pirahã refer to their language. The Pirahã language was classified as a member of the Mura family by Nimuendajú (1982a). Henrichs (1964) classified it as tonal. Everett has analyzed the language in numerous works (cf. 1979, 1983, 1985a, 1985b, 1986a, 1986b). A tonal language is characterized by its manipulation of supra-segmental resources (the relation between tones) in order to establish meanings. Thus on the basis of tones, the Pirahã can generate specific modes of communication: by means of cries, whistles, and ‘eating-speech.’ Cries enable communication over a large distance and are generally used to converse while they are navigating in one or more canoes on the river. Communication by means of whistles occurs during expeditions in the forest or on rivers, when voiced speech could risk undermining the expedition’s objective. Everett (1983) documented that the whistles follow tones and not a standardized tonality that establishes a meaning. In this way, the Pirahã are capable of providing words and even phrases through the recourse to whistles. ‘Eating-speech’ is a third possibility for establishing communication by means of tones: they can continue talking while chewing on food.

Most men understand Portuguese, though not all of them are able to express themselves in the language. Women have little understanding of Portuguese and never use it as a form of expression. The men developed a contact ‘language’ allowing them to communicate with regional populations, mixing words from Pirahã, Portuguese and the Amazonian língua geral (a Tupi-based trade language more commonly known as nheengatu).