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This is a video clip provided by Dan Everett, in which he interviews Kaioá, a Pirahã man in his 30s.   Dan's transcription, translation, and discussion can be found here.

Dan's comment on the background:

A documentary on the Pirahã language and my work is under way by Essential Media and Entertainment of Australia. After the first filming experience among the Pirahã, I have realized that the data we are collecting are useful not only for the documentary but for research. Since much of the data in the film clips I am translating is relevant to discussions of the theoretical interest of Pirahã, I have decided to post some clips with transcriptions on my website.

They are found under the heading New Data. I have no idea what material will wind up in the documentary. We are filming at a ratio of roughly 80:1 – 80 minutes of film for every 1 minute of documentary – not uncommon. I ask that no one cite the data without first checking with me. I might have missed some things in the transcription and would want to double-check my own notes and transcriptions before letting the data be published.

This first video is interesting because the speaker, Kaioá, discusses quanties and 'numbers' at length.

Comments are welcome and I will try to answer any queries that people might have about the data.

Dan introduces his transcription, translation and commentary this way:

In the discussion of quantity, numbers and so on in any pre-literate society, especially a monolingual society such as the Pirahã, it is vital that hypotheses both emerge from and are evaluated by several kinds of evidence, including natural discourse, experiments, and a written grammar of the language, itself rigorously tested.

I am providing here two links to low-resolution video clips taken from a documentary about Pirahã currently in production by Essential Media and Entertainment of Australia. These particular clips focus mainly on quantity and numbers. The fact that they were not planned to investigate these topics give them even more credibility as data because the speakers' comments in each of the videos are spontaneous.

The first video (0001C6) is by Kaioá, a man in his late thirties (whom I have known since he was a young boy). Kaioá is talked about in my book, Don't sleep there are snakes. As a young boy he learned how to count in Portuguese from my ex-wife, Keren, and me. He could count well in Portuguese from 1-10 and could use that knowledge well. I tried to teach him to use 'hói' as the number one, 'hoí' as the number two, and then all the rest of the numbers in Portuguese. But he preferred to use 'um' and 'dois', Portuguese for one and two. In this video he uses 'hoí' and 'hói' for small and few, respectively, and it is clear that they are never synonymous with English 'one' or 'two'. Items in ()s in the video transcription are implied in the context, but not stated overtly by the speaker.

Also, he uses words that I at one time understood to mean 'only' and 'alone' in ways that clearly do not mean only and alone. My further commentaries are found in {}s in the transcriptions of each speaker says. Readers can extract sound (intonation in particular) and try to come to their own conclusions about Pirahã recursion. I haven't gotten around yet to providing morpheme by morpheme glosses.

[When I have a chance, I'll produce an html version of the transcription and translation with phrase-by-phrase links to sound clips.]


  1. Josh Bowles said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    I have read Everett's recent papers and the ensuing "debates" about recursivity, quantification, and the like. I am curious if anyone out there has done any work on what might be termed topological semantics.

    That is, quantity in terms of volume of space, instead of the much more common notion of quantity as numerical cardinality. For example, 2 fish is a smaller quantity than 6 fish (because 2 has lower cardinality than 6; [this of course has a long and distinguished career in logic, set theory, and formal semantics]). UNLESS one measures quantity by volume: in which case it is possible that 2 very large fish can be a greater quantity than 6 very small fish (it is possible that cardinality "could" be re-defined here in terms of 3 dimensional volume… (e.g., some vector space(s)).

    Is anyone aware of a (any) linguistic study that makes such a distinction in quantity?

  2. Sili said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    It's good to see more material become public. I recall reading some somewhat acrimonious comments about Everett keeping his informants too close for anyone else to evaluate his analyses. I hope this'll help towards stopping the needless sniping.

  3. SG said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    "Is anyone aware of a (any) linguistic study that makes such a distinction in quantity?"

    I believe that this book tried to deal with roughly that topic (experimentally):
    Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J., and Sharp, D. W. (1971). The cultural context of learning and thinking. New York: Basic

  4. marie-lucie said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    Joxh Bowles:

    what might be termed topological semantics.
    That is, quantity in terms of volume of space, instead of the much more common notion of quantity as numerical cardinality.

    I find the idea very interesting, and indeed applicable to linguistics. Specifically, in some native languages of North America there are quite a number of cases where a verb has quite distinct, apparently suppletive roots or stems for singular and plural, and this is considered an areal feature, though unexplained. One example is a verb root meaning "run (singular)", the plural of which is another verb root literally meaning "flow, pour" (said of water, sand, gravel, etc). I interpret this as meaning that that "plural" is not to be understood in numerical terms but in terms of the aggregate subject acting as a single mass rather than as individuals, as for instance in "The crowd poured out of the stadium after the game". A single person could not "pour" in this sense, but "the crowd" consists of an undifferentiated mass of individuals, best described by a collective term.

  5. Josh Bowles said,

    November 27, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    marie-lucie (and also thanks to SG for the response):

    I should note that there is such a thing as topological semantics (it goes back to Tarski, and some recent work on topological semantics for modal logic exists), but as far as I can tell there is no topological semantics for natural language — the closest thing I've found is some brief work by Nicholas Asher and Laure Vieu, "Toward a Geometry of Common Sense." I have not had the time to read much of this semantic topology work, nor develop anything from it.

    It seems like, intuitively, topological formalizations for semantics are relevant for a lot of natural language phenomena. What really got me thinking about it was reading the excellent biography of Tarski (by Feferman and Feferman) and thinking over some research I had done on noun classifiers in South American languages. Many of these classifiers are partitioned according to geometrical shape, among other things. Mass and "collective" terms also seem to be relevant areas open to investigation.

    The problem for me is that I see semantic topology as such a useful tool for natural language phenomena that I can't believe there isn't a bunch of explicit work on it already. I'm sure that theories of reference must incorporate ideas from topology and spatial reasoning. I hope to tackle some of this stuff in PhD work beginning this fall.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    marie-lucie: If I understand you correctly, Indonesian redoublings have this quality. The root form of verbs is the gerund, so jalan, walking; jalan-jalan, walking around. I have described the effect as adding vagueness, but maybe there is a more precise way to characterize it.

  7. marie-lucie said,

    November 28, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    Nathan, reduplication is often connected with semantic and/or grammatical concepts of repetition or plurality, but "vagueness" could also fit into the same general area, as indicating "indeterminate number" rather than strictly "plurality".

    Josh and Nathan, I would be interested to learn more about your work on these topics.

  8. Josh Bowles said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    I have not really worked on much with topological semantics directly… I'm trying to get a feel of what work there is out there, and how such work might be useful for linguistics before I invest much work in it. But I will certainly e-mail anything I have in the future. You can e-mail me at bowlesling@gmail.com, or leave your e-mail here and I get it.

  9. 23Skidoo said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 4:14 pm


    I'd call your semantics measure-theoretic instead of topological. Volume is not a topological property.

  10. Ray Dillinger said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    In college I tutored some learning-disabled folk, and I've met smart innumerates who seemed to have a good grasp of quantity without having a good grasp of numbers. I recall one fellow whose answers to numerical questions were always one of this list: One, Two, Three, Four, A few, Some, Several, Many, Lots. So, he had nine "numbers." Four would be his answer sometimes for quantities of four or five, but one through three had the same meaning that the rest of us use. A few, Some, Several, and Many corresponded to ranges with some overlap, but the ranges seemed to be centered on doublings to triplings, so that two or three "somes" usually added up to "several" and two or three "severals" usually added up to "many". Anything over a hundred, he would just call "Lots".

    But for all that his numbers were vague by modern standards, his sense of quantity was pretty precise. If you asked him using larger units for the base quantity, (Tankfuls of water instead of gallons, or busloads of people instead of people) until it fell below five and you got a number, it was usually the right number. In fact he had usually a more accurate idea of quantity, especially areas and volumes, just by rapid eyeball-measure, than most people who used numbers when they estimated rather than counting.

    Anyway, this comes to mind because of those two distinct methods of arriving at a quantity. "Vague" numeric systems, IMO, correspond to what I called eyeball-measure. When you just look at things, and try to say how much there is, the "vague" numeric systems tend to encapsulate the useful categories you can see and express. Actual integer-based systems, the distinction between "count" and "mass" noun categories, and the notion of how "many" there are as opposed to how "much", are all expressions of the idea of counting, which is not at all a natural thing for people. Our brains have to be trained to do it, and if for some reason the training doesn't take, even we moderns fall back into those vague not-counting numeric systems.

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