Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An immediate, instantaneous grab bag

A friend has often commented to me that she finds the New Yorker conservative and rightwing (this may sound redundant, but I think a case can be made that there are differences between the two). I listened slightly disbelievingly, seeing sort of what she meant in some articles, but hey, Seymour Hersch! Anyway, a belated reading of "The Interpreter," an article on the Pirahã language, spoken by the tribe of the same name in northwestern Brazil, confirmed my friend's opinion.

Actually, saying it was an article on the Pirahã language is erroneous, since the article focuses primarily on American linguistics professor Dan Everett and his efforts to research the language, along the way, possibly disproving Chomsky's theory of a "universal grammar" (the latter which, OK, is interesting). The tribal members themselves and their language remain opaque and "othered" to an extreme extent.

In the very first paragraph, writer John Colapinto establishes that "It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it." With that, he seems to abandon all effort to depict the Pirahã and their language outside of the suffocating prism of Everett, whose entire CV apparently has been encapsulated in the article (we know exactly when he graduated from school and in what, when he got married, how long the hikes he endured through the rainforest were, on and on, ugh). The piece is full of cringe-inducing moments, from the various arrivals of scholar-characters who believe "they knew how to establish an instant rapport with indigenous peoples," by making popping sounds (and eventually presenting contracts to sign that give away all rights to land and oil no doubt) to the last-minute entrance of Everett's ex-wife (that she's an ex is tactfully buried several pages into the article--why? To induce "suspense"?). She's still faithfully plugging away at converting the Pirahã to Christianity (but yet she's the only other character who seems to have insight into their language. By the end, one's desperately thirsty for any opinion other than Everett's, yet she's a total sidenote. And shouldn't, at this point, missionary work among remote holdouts be outlawed, please? Isn't there enough work to be done among the heathens of NYC's East Village?).

I wanted more on this intriguingly present language, more quotes, more "translations" (Heck, I'd even take Everett's). There's only a handful of samples provided in phonetic transcription, or even English "translation." And there's certainly no direct interaction with tribal members, or even much indirect, other than some "evolutionary biologist" (gawd help us) who makes them sit at a computer and watch a monkey head float up and down, a task that's described as something even "undergraduates and monkeys" could do (I pity the eb's students). I truly appreciated the one Pirahã who fell asleep mid-experiment. Anyway, if you want to know what drugs Everett took when he was a teenager, read this article. But if you want an insightful and in-depth and non-patronizing look at the Pirahã and their language, go elsewhere (but don't go visit--it sounds like the Pirahã already have more visitors than they ever need...)


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