What is love? Shakespeare wrote that love is a star. He is one of thousands of poets and writers who have used symbols to express this deep feeling. Love is a journey. Love is a rose. Love is a fire. Love is a light. Love is a bird. Love is war. Love is a disease. Love is an addiction. Love is a game. The list of love metaphors goes on and on. Talking about abstract ideas like love is a unique human ability. This is true for almost every language in the world, but not for the language of the Pirahã people of Brazil.
The Piraha are a small tribe of about 400 people that live in the Amazon. Unlike every other human language, Piraha doesn’t have words for abstract ideas. They only talk about what they directly experience or what people they know have directly experienced. The idea that love is a star is not something that they would understand. The Piraha are not stupid, they just have a different way of experiencing the world. Daniel Everett is a professor who has been studying the Piraha for thirty years and deeply respects their culture. They have a wide knowledge of the thousands of plants and animals of the Amazon. He says, “they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game.”
Another unusual thing about the Piraha language is they don’t talk about time. There are no words for tomorrow or yesterday or last year. While there are a few words to say day and night or morning, they mostly live in a world without time. There is also no past or future tense. They have no way to talk about time. They have no history and they don’t talk about things that happened before their grandparents were born. Their experience of the world is almost completely in the present.
Piraha also does not have words for numbers. They have a word for more and a word for less, but there is no way to be specific about quantity. They don’t count how much food they have, or how many people they have in their tribe, or even how many children they have. This doesn’t mean they don’t have deep relationships with their children or other members of the tribe. It just means that they do not think of them as numbers.
It’s hard to imagine a world without time and numbers, but Dan Everett admires this part of their culture. He describes the Piraha language as having a grammar of happiness. Many spiritual teachers say that living in the present moment is the way to happiness. Maybe this is why the Piraha don’t have these words. Their culture is one free of worrying about the future and the past, and enjoying each day fully.
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