MIT News

Let’s travel to South America, specifically to the indigenous tribe called the Hi’aiti’ihi, who speak the Pirahã language deep within the Amazonian jungle. This tribe has been the source of much controversy and discussion among linguistics professors. Why? Because, as [linguist] Dan Everett’s research reveals:

“The Pirahã live from moment to moment, and the language reflects that. […] No stories exist that haven’t either been experienced by the speaker or by someone the speaker knew personally. If anything is spoken of that isn’t within that principle, it isn’t credible to the tribe and therefore is not accepted. Stories don’t travel more than one or two generations because one must experience subjects personally. No stories or fictional tales are passed on.”


Of even greater linguistic interest, however, is the fact that their language does not have any numbers. Let’s back up. I’m not sure you heard me. This language is unique in several ways, but primarily world-renowned in linguistic communities because it contains no numbers. None, whatsoever. Not a single one. Not even one. Sorry, what?

Can you imagine such a world? I look at the clock, and see digits. I do my taxes, and write numbers. I use an iPad, cell phone, desktop, laptop–essentially any device–and know that somehow, “01010101” and an enormous amount of coding lets me communicate with nearly anyone in the world. A world without numbers? What about synesthetes? What about birthdays? What about money? Or addresses? What about time? Does no time means no past or future? How many jobs would not exist if there weren’t numbers? I am speechless, wordless, number-less…

To clarify, these hunter-gatherers** do have smaller or larger amounts (the concept of more or less), but no numbers. I have read before that in order to barter, one might turn a palm skyward to indicate more, and downward for less–but there are no numbers, either to quantify what is being bartered or to exchange currencies.

**Some have suggested in recent years that our cyber habits closely parallel hunter-gatherer societies and thought, in the sense that we skim information quickly, only searching for what we want to catch, or gather. Hmmm.

Atlantean & Basque

My initial encounter with the Basque language (Euskara) was a bit of a shock, particularly since I was in Spain and, well, expected Spanish/ Castellano to be the default. I was hiking across the northern part of the Iberian peninsula and had not anticipated the, “How, what…?” linguistic shock. I didn’t even know the question. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Why don’t I see any common word roots in something like tabakalera?” was what my brain wanted to ask.

Or, better yet and upon later research, what are the root words in, “Euskararen Txantxangorria’ren“? (It means, “the Basque red robin“, in case you were wondering, and is a song–see below–as part of a campaign to encourage the use of the Basque language.)

Basque is, without a doubt, unrelated to any other Latin language, which would explain my confusion. In fact,


“[Atlanteans] believed that if something was written down, it encouraged forgetfulness and simultaneously discouraged the cultivation of memory.”

Shirley Andrews

Talk about a different perspective! I admit that I get up in the middle of the night to write down a thought on a Post-It so that I won’t forget in the morning. Imagine how strong our minds would be if we did not write anything down! Ever. How would our understanding of history change? In what would our days consist? Certainly not blogging like this. Even the syntax is quite distinct:

Songs in Euskara

The Moken

The Moken

If people without numbers are not enough for you today, the Moken Tribe–living near Thailand and Burma–will fix that. They do not have a word for “want” in their language. Likewise, “worry” is not a concept in their language; nor are “take”, “hello/goodbye”, or “when” (no time/ages). This is the same tribe that knew a deadly tsunami was coming in 2004 and saved themselves. Aren’t languages fascinating? What we understand as reality is not always the case for the rest of the world. No time, no wants, no worries…

For beautiful photos that, due to copyright law I am not allowed to publish here, please visit THIS SITE.

“Baggage is not good for nomadic people. It ties you down. They have no notion or desire for wealth.”


Study: Japanese and Mandarin

To continue with the theme of grammatical and syntactical differences between languages, and whether or not that could possibly determine if language shapes or influences how we think, we travel to the far east. Now, the general character-based appearance is obviously different from alphabet-based languages, but let’s take it a step farther.

If I gave you six objects to categorize, as pictured below, how would you group them?

Arguably, this is highly dependent on which language(s) you speak. English-speakers are more likely to group by category, “pen and pencil” (for writing), “cup and plate” (for eating), “car and Legos” (for playing), whereas Japanese speakers might group more by material, “pen and car” (metal), “pencil and plate” (wooden), and “cup and Legos” (plastic).

Japanese and Mandarin both have classifiers, or “measure words”, which attach themselves to numbers–so how you say, “one tree” is different than how you would say, “one car”, since trees are in the “wood” category and cars are more in the “metal” category.

To learn more, check out the following linguistic studies:

Aymara & Quechua

About Time

Aymara and Quechua are spoken in the Andes mountains and highlands of South America. While many fewer people speak Aymara compared to Quechua (2.4 million to 8-12 million, respectively), both are relatively unknown to much of the world.

I love that learning about other languages and cultures always gives us new perspectives. It is like when you stand on a chair: the room is still the same room, but you notice different things about it. As we deepen our language study, we begin to notice new perspectives embedded in other languages and cultures. What is especially unique about Aymara and Quechua, is their understanding of time.

“[T]he Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.” 

“The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or ‘past’, literally means eya and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.”

Consumer Behavior (book)

In other words, everything we can see is considered the past, and therefore in front of us; everything we cannot see and is therefore unknown, is the future and behind us. This is actually very logical when you think about. Could that one unique linguistic perspective influence how we think?


While Quechua still has a significant number of speakers, it is actually considered an endangered language. However, the internet is helping to popularize and revitalize Quechua (along with other endangered languages), so that more people learn to speak it.

Renata Flores, for example, sang a Michael Jackson song in Quechua to help her native language become more popular, and the video went viral. If you’ve never heard Quechua before, I recommend listening!

Colors In Other Languages

When it comes to colors, it is easy to assume that the associations we were once taught in art class–blue is paired with sadness, yellow with happiness, red with love, etc.–are true for everyone the world over. As we learn in the tables and video below, however, that is not always the case.

The color green, for example, signifies luck and progress in Western cultures (think: four-leaf clover!), and in Hindu, it is associated with love; whereas in South America, green is associated with death, and in Indonesia, it has such strong negative connotations that it is forbidden altogether. Wow!

(With that in mind, I cannot imagine the conversations that must be had when it comes to advertising for international companies and the colors on their logos.)

LINKS: The Beauty of Data Visualization, Infographic: Cultured Colors, David McCandless Color Chart Culture, The Meaning of Colors Across Cultures, Colors Across Cultures