Pirahã language

Pirahã (also spelled Pirahá, Pirahán; Portuguese: Pirarrã; Pirahã language: xapaitíiso) is a language spoken by the Pirahã — an indigenous people of Amazonas, Brazil, who live along the Maici river, a tributary of the Amazon.

Pirahã is believed to be the only surviving member of the Mura language family, all other members having become extinct in the last few centuries. It is therefore a language isolate, without any known connection to other living languages. It is estimated to have between 250 and 380 speakers . It is not thought to be in danger of extinction, as its use is vigorous and the Pirahã community is mostly monolingual.

The Pirahã language has a number of linguistic features that are claimed by some linguists to be unusual, though others have argued that they are found in other languages as well. The most significant source for information about the grammar of Pirahã is Daniel Everett, who has authored more than two dozen papers about the language.

Linguistic features

Noteworthy features of Pirahã are alleged to include:

  • One of the smallest phoneme inventories of any known language (perhaps surpassed only by Rotokas), and a correspondingly high degree of allophonic variation, including two very rare sounds, [ɺ͡ɺ̼] and [t͡ʙ̥].
  • The pronunciation of several phonemes depends on the speaker's sex. Female speakers use seven consonants and three vowels, while male speakers have one more consonant at their disposal.
  • An extremely limited clause structure.
  • Limitation of numerals to "one" or "two" (though in recent work Everett has claimed that Pirahã lacks even these numerals; the closest are general quantity words like "many").
  • No abstract color words other than terms for light and dark (though this is disputed in commentaries by Paul Kay and others on Everett (2005)).
  • Few specific kin terms; one word covers both "father" and "mother".
  • The entire set of personal pronouns appears to have been borrowed from Nheengatu, a Tupi-based lingua franca. Although there is no documentation of a prior stage of Pirahã, the close resemblance of the Pirahã pronouns to those of Nheengatu makes this hypothesis plausible.
  • Pirahã can be whistled, hummed, or encoded in music.

However, some of these claims are controversial.


The Pirahã language is one of the phonologically simplest languages known, claimed to have as few as ten phonemes (one fewer than Rotokas). This requires analysing [k] as an underlying /hi/. Although odd cross-linguistically, Ian Maddieson has found in researching Pirahã data that /k/ indeed has an unusual distribution.

The 'ten phoneme' claim also does not consider the tones of Pirahã, at least two of which are phonemic (marked by an acute accent and either unmarked or marked by a grave accent in Everett), bringing the number of phonemes to at least twelve. Sheldon (1988) claims three tones, high (¹), mid (²) and low (³).

Phoneme inventory

When languages have inventories as small and allophonic variation as great as in Pirahã and Rotokas, different linguists may have very different ideas as to the nature of their phonological systems.


Front Back
Close i
Mid o
Open a


The segmental phonemes are:

Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Stop Voiceless p t (k) ʔ (written "x")
Voiced b g
Fricative Voiceless s h
[k] has been claimed to be an optional portmanteau of /hi/. Women sometimes substitute /h/ for /s/.

Pirahã consonants with example words
Phoneme Phone Word
/p/ [p] pibaóí “otter”
/t/ [t] taahoasi “sand”
[tʃ] before /i/ tii “residue”
/k/ [k] kaaxai “macaw”
/ʔ/ [ʔ] kaaxai “macaw”
/b/ [b] xísoobái “down (noun)”
[m] initially boopai “throat, neck”
/g/ [g] xopóoginga (fruit)”
[n] initially gáatahaí “can (noun)”
[*] (see below) toogixi “hoe”
/s/ [s] sahaxai “should not”
[ʃ] before /i/ siisí “fat (noun)”
/h/ [h] xáapahai “bird arrow”

The number of phonemes is thirteen if [k] is counted as a phoneme and there are just two tones; if [k] is not phonemic, there are twelve phonemes, one more than the number found in Rotokas. (English, by comparison, has about thirty to forty-five, depending on dialect). However, many of these sounds show a great deal of allophonic variation. For instance, vowels are nasalized after the glottal consonants /h/ and /ʔ/ (written h and x). Also,

  • /b/ : the nasal [m] after a pause, the trill [ʙ] before /o/.
  • /g/ : the nasal [n] after a pause (an apical alveolar nasal); [ɺ͡ɺ̼] is a lateral alveolar-linguolabial double flap that has only been reported for this language, where the tongue strikes the upper gum ridge and then strikes the lower lip. However, it is only used in certain special types of speech performances, and so might not be considered a normal speech sound.
  • /s/ : in women's speech, /s/ occurs as [h] before [i], and "sometimes" elsewhere.
  • /k/ : in men's speech, word-initial [k] and [ʔ] are interchangeable. For many people, [k] and [p] may be exchanged in some words. The sequences [hoa] and [hia] are said to be in free variation with [kʷa] and [ka], at least in some words.

Because of its variation, Everett states that /k/ is not a stable phoneme. By analysing it as /hi/, he is able to theoretically reduce the number of consonants to seven.

Because of the consonant chart above, Pirahã is sometimes said to be one of the few languages without nasals. However, an alternate analysis is possible. By analysing the [g] as /n/ and the [k] as /hi/, it could also be claimed to be one of the very few languages without velars:

Bilabial Alveolar Glottal
Stop p t ʔ
Nasal m n
Fricative s h

The bilabial trill

In 2004, linguist D. L. Everett discovered that the language uses a voiceless dental bilabially trilled affricate, [t͡ʙ̥]. He conjectures that the Pirahã had not used that phone in his presence before because they were ridiculed whenever non-Pirahã heard the sound. The occurrence of [t͡ʙ̥] in Pirahã is all the more remarkable considering that the only other languages known to use it are the unrelated Chapacura-Wanham languages Oro Win and Wari’, spoken some 500 km west of the Pirahã area. Oro Win too is a nearly extinct language (surviving only as the second language of a dozen or so members of the Wari’ tribe) which was discovered by Everett in 1994.


Pirahã has a few loan words, mainly from Portuguese. Pirahã "kóópo" ("cup") is from the Portuguese word "copo", and "bikagogia" ("business") comes from Portuguese "mercadoria" ("merchandise").

Kinship terms

Everett (2005) claims that the Pirahã culture has the simplest known kinship system of any human culture. A single word, baíxi (pronounced [màíʔì]), is used for both mother and father, and they appear not to keep track of relationships any more distant than biological siblings.

Numerals and grammatical number

According to Everett (1986), Pirahã has words for 'one' (hói) and'two' (hoí) (distinguished only by tone). but more recently (Everett 2005) he has claimed that Pirahã has no words for numerals at all, and that hói and hoí actually mean "small quantity" and "larger quantity". Frank et al. (2008) describes two experiments on four Pirahã speakers that were designed to test these two hypotheses. In one, ten batteries were placed one on a table one at a time and the Pirahã were asked how many were there. All four speakers answered in accordance with the hypothesis that the language has words for 'one' and 'two' in this experiment, uniformly saying hói for one battery, hoí for two batteries, and a mixture of the second word and 'many' for more than two batteries. The second experiment, however, started with ten batteries on the table, and batteries were subtracted one at a time. In this experiment, one speaker used hói (the word supposed to mean 'one') when there were six batteries left, and all four speakers used that word consistently when there were as many as three batteries left. Though Frank and his colleagues do not attempt to explain their subjects' difference in behavior in these two experiments, they conclude that the two words under investigation "are much more likely to be relative or comparative terms like 'few' or 'fewer' than absolute terms like 'one'.

There is no grammatical distinction between singular and plural, even in pronouns (see below).

Color terms

There is also a claim that Pirahã lacks any color terminology, being one of the few cultures (mostly in the Amazon basin and New Guinea) that only have specific words for light and dark. Although the Pirahã glossary in D. L. Everett's Ph.D. thesis includes a list of colors words (page 346), Everett (2006) now claims that the items listed in this glossary are not in fact words but descriptive phrases, based on his subsequent additional twenty years of field research.



The basic Pirahã personal pronouns are ti "I", gíxai [níʔàì] "you (singular)", hi "s/he, they". These can be serially combined: ti gíxai or ti hi to mean "we" (inclusive and exclusive), and gíxai hi to mean "you (plural)". There are several other pronouns reported, such as 'she', 'it' (animal), 'it' (aquatic animal), and 'it' (inanimate), but these may actually be nouns. The fact that different linguists come up with different lists of such pronouns suggests that they are not basic to the grammar. In two recent papers, Everett cites Sheldon as agreeing with his (Everett's) analysis of the pronouns.

Sheldon (1988) gives the following list of pronouns:

ti³ "I"
gi¹xai³ "you" (sing.)
hi³ "he" (human)
"she" (human)
i¹k "it", "they" (animated non-human non-aquatic)
si³ "it", "they" (animated non-human aquatic)
"it", "they" (non-animated)
ti³a¹ti³so³ "we"
gi¹xa³i¹ti³so³ "you" (pl.)
hi³ai¹ti³so³ "they" (human?)

Pronouns are prefixed to the verb, in the order SUBJECT-INDOBJECT-OBJECT where INDOBJECT includes a preposition "to", "for", etc. They may all be omitted, e.g., hi³-ti³-gi¹xai³-bi²i³b-i³ha³i¹ "he will send you to me".

For possession, a pronoun is used:

    paitá hi xitóhoi
Paita s/he testicles
"Paita's testicles"


Pirahã is agglutinative, using a large number of affixes to communicate grammatical meaning. Even the 'to be' verbs of existence or equivalence are suffixes in Pirahã. For instance, the Pirahã sentence "there is a paca there" uses just two words; the copula is a suffix on "paca":

    káixihíxao-xaagá gáihí
paca-exists there
"There's a paca there"

Pirahã also uses suffixes which communicate evidentiality, a category which English grammar lacks. One such suffix, -xáagahá, means that the speaker actually observed the event in question:

    hoagaxóai hi páxai kaopápi-sai-xáagahá
Hoaga'oai s/he [a fish] catch-ing- (I saw it)
"I saw Hoaga'oai catching a pa'ai fish"

(The suffix -sai turns a verb into a noun, like English '-ing'.)

Other verbal suffixes indicate that an action is deduced from circumstantial evidence, or based on hearsay. Unlike in English, in Pirahã a speaker must state their source of information: they cannot be ambiguous. There are also verbal suffixes that indicate desire to perform an action, frustration in completing an action, or frustration in even starting an action.

There are also a large number of verbal aspects: perfective (completed) vs. imperfective (uncompleted), telic (reaching a goal) vs. atelic, continuing, repeated, and commencing. However, despite this complexity, there appears to be little distinction of transitivity. For example, the same verb, xobai, can mean either 'look' or 'see', and xoab can mean either 'die' or 'kill'.

According to Sheldon (1988), the Pirahã verb has 8 main suffix slots, and a few sub-slots:

Slot A:
intensive ba³i¹
Slot B:
causative/incompletive bo³i¹
causative/completive bo³ga¹
inchoative/incompletive ho³i¹
inchoative/completive hoa³ga¹
future/somewhere a²i³p.
future/elsewhere a²o³p
past a²o³b
Slot C:
negative/optative sa³i¹ + C1
Slot C1:
preventive ha³xa³
opinionated ha³
possible Ø
positive/optative a³a¹ti³
negative/indicative hia³b + C2
positive/indicative Ø + C2
Slot C2:
probabilistic/certain i³ha³i¹
probabilistic/uncertain/beginning a³ba³ga³i¹
probabilistic/uncertain/execution a³ba³i¹
probabilistic/uncertain/completion a³a¹
stative i²xi³
interrogative1/progressive i¹hi¹ai¹
interrogative2/progressive o¹xoi¹hi¹ai¹
interrogative1 i¹hi¹
interrogative2 o¹xoi¹hi¹
Slot D:
continuative xii³g
repetitive ta³
Slot E:
immediate a¹ha¹
intentive i³i¹
Slot F:
durative a³b
Slot G:
desiderative so³g
Slot H:
causal ta³i¹o³
conclusive si³bi³ga³
emphatic/reiterative koi + H1
emphatic ko³i¹ + H1
reiterative i³sa³ + H1
Ø + H1
Slot H1:
present i³hi¹ai³
past i³xa¹a³ga³
pastImmediate a³ga³ha¹

These suffixes undergo some phonetic changes depending on context. For instance, the continuative xii³g reduces to ii³g after a consonant, e.g., ai³t-a¹b-xii³g-a¹ai³ta¹bii³ga¹ "he is still sleeping".

Also an epenthetic vowel gets inserted between two suffixes if necessary to avoid a consonant cluster; the vowel is either (before or after s, p, or t) or (other cases), e.g., o³ga³i¹ so³g-sa³i¹o³ga³i¹ so³gi³sa³i¹ "he possibly may not want a field".

Conversely, when the junction of two morphemes creates a double vowel (ignoring tones), the vowel with lowest tone is suppressed: si³-ba¹-bo³-ga³-a¹si³ba¹bo³ga¹ "he caused the arrow to wound it".

For further details, see Sheldon's 1988 paper.


In order to embed one clause within another, the embedded clause is turned into a noun with the -sai suffix seen above:

    hi ob-áaxái kahaí kai-sai
s/he knows-really arrow make-ing
"He really knows how to make arrows" (literally, 'he really knows arrow-making')

    ti xog-i-baí gíxai kahaí kai-sai
I want-this-very.much you arrow make-ing
"I'd really like you to make arrows" (lit., 'I really like/want your arrow-making')

Everett claims that this structure does not really constitute embedding, but is an instance of parataxis, but this has been disputed by other linguists. Everett responds to these criticisms with the claim that -sai marks 'old information' and does not nominalize.

Pirahã and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Though it is controversial whether the Pirahã have words for 'one' and 'two' (see above) it is not controversial that they lack higher numbers. For these, they use only approximate measures, and in tests (Frank et al. 2008) were unable to consistently distinguish between a group of four objects and a similarly-arranged group of five objects. When asked to duplicate groups of objects, they duplicate the number correctly on average, but almost never get the number exactly in a single trial.

Being (correctly) concerned that, because of this cultural gap, they were being cheated in trade, the Pirahã people asked Daniel Everett, a linguist that was working with them, to teach them basic numeracy skills. After eight months of enthusiastic but fruitless daily study, the Pirahã concluded that they were incapable of learning the material, and discontinued the lessons. Not a single Pirahã had learned to count up to ten or even add 1 + 1.

Everett argues that test subjects are unable to count for two cultural reasons and one formal linguistic reason. First, they are nomadic hunter/gatherers with nothing to count and hence no need to practice doing so. Second, they have a cultural constraint against generalizing beyond the present which eliminates number words. Third, since numerals and counting are based on recursion in the language according to some researchers, then the absence of recursion in their language entails a lack of counting. That is, it is the lack of need which explains both the lack of counting ability and the lack of corresponding vocabulary. Everett does not claim that the Pirahãs are cognitively incapable of counting.

Knowledge of other languages

Everett claims that most of the remaining Pirahã speakers are monolingual, knowing only a few words of Portuguese. The anthropologist Marco Antonio Gonçalves, who lived with the Pirahã for 18 months over several years, writes that "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 known as Nheengatu. In recent work, Jeanette Sakel of the University of Manchester is studying the use of Portuguese by Pirahã speakers. Everett's claim is that the Pirahãs use a very rudimentary Portuguese lexicon with Pirahã grammar when speaking Portuguese, though their Portuguese is so limited to very specific topics that they are rightly called monolingual, without contradicting Gonçalves (since they can communicate on a very narrow range of topics using a very restricted lexicon). Although Gonçalves quotes whole stories told by the Pirahã, the Portuguese in these stories is not a literal transcription of what was said, but a free translation from the pidgin Portuguese of the Pirahã.

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