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October 13, 1994

Linguistics professor discovers new language in Brazilian rain forest

Pitt linguistics department chairperson Daniel Everett found a new sound and a whole new language last spring in the Brazilian rain forest.

The language, called "Oro Win" (pronounced OR-oh WEEN), is spoken by only about a half-dozen of the 40-50 members of the tribe of the same name. The Oro Win live at the headwaters of the Pacaas-Novos River, itself a tributary of the Mamore River along Brazil's border with Bolivia.

Before coming to Pitt six years ago, Everett lived in Brazil for 11 years doing linguistic field research among Amazonian Indians. Since then, he has visited the rain forest annually to continue his studies with the tribesmen, mainly the Piraha, whose language has only seven consonants and three vowels (the smallest number of sounds of any documented language) and can be whistled as well as spoken. Everett wrote the first Piraha grammar text and recently co-authored the first grammar of the Wari language, spoken by some 1,830 people.

Everett came across the Oro Win language while spending his sabbatical last January through July among Amazonian tribes. After failing to find even a reference to Oro Win in the limited linguistic literature on such tribes, Everett concluded that the language was unknown to any Westerners except about a dozen living missionaries and employees of the Brazilian Indian Foundation, a government agency similar to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"One of the reasons that Oro Win may have gone undiscovered for so long is that the people who speak it are bilingual in Wari," said Everett. "Oro Win may have appeared to be the same as Wari or a dialect, but in fact it is a separate language." Most Oro Win today are switching to Portuguese as their main language, Everett noted.

Oro Win and Wari are mutually unintelligible. However, both are what linguists call VOS languages — an extremely rare language type in which declarative sentences follow a pattern of verb/ direct object/subject. While an English speaker would say "John ate the apple," a VOS language speaker would say the equivalent of "Ate apple John." Everett said he plans to apply for National Science Foundation funding to produce an Oro Win grammar text. In the meantime, he has shared his discoveries about Oro Win with colleagues via an E-mail network for linguists.

Everett also is writing a paper describing a heretofore undocumented grammatical sound that he heard in Brazil while working on his Wari grammar.

In English, the sound is rendered as "tp~" and pronounced as the "t" consonant sound followed immediately by what linguists call a "bilabial trill," which sounds like a person releasing air between vibrating lips in imitation of a snorting horse — or flatulence.

"Phonetically, there are two sounds there but they are treated in the language as a single sound. That combination has never been treated as a single sound in any other documented language," Everett said.

After hearing the sound for the first time from Wari speakers, Everett was stunned to hear it again weeks later from the Piraha tribesman who had been his main teacher of that language. "I have a videotape of this scene, and you can see the shock on my face when I heard it," Everett said, with a laugh. "I had never before heard this sound from the Piraha in the 17 years I had been working with them." Stranger still, Piraha and Wari are not related linguistically. Everett theorizes that the two languages share the "tp~" sound because, according to the Piraha, some Indians who spoke the now-extinct Tora language — which is related to Wari — intermarried with the Piraha.

Why, then, didn't the Piraha pronounce the "tp~" sound in Everett's presence until recently? Probably because it sounds funny to Westerners, Everett said.

"These Indians tend to get made fun of when they use certain sounds that are funny-sounding to us, so they substitute other sounds in their place when they're talking to Westerners. This is a socio-linguistically interesting phenomenon in itself," he said.

As a cognitive linguist, Everett studies languages to find out what they reveal about the ways humans think and view the world. To Everett, any language is worth being thoroughly researched, even if it is spoken only by a half-dozen geographically isolated people.

"If we as humans lose something when a bird species dies out, it is much more significant, in my opinion, when the language of an entire culture dies out without at least being documented and recorded," he said. "I think we're a poorer people when we lose this knowledge and this source of insights into the world."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 4

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