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March 6, 1997

Daniel Everett

Truthfulness is something all good parent try to teach their child. But are there any real advantages in being truthful? Daniel Everett, chair of Pitt's linguistics department, asked the Founders Day audience.

Recent research, Everett pointed out in his lecture, "Jungle Talk: Conversational Style in Amazonia," has shown that there are some very real advantages to lying even in animal communication.

"Part of the purpose of communicating is to survive and one of the ways you survive is to give people bum steers so that you come out ahead," Everett said. "Whether you are a bee or a bird or a human, it turns out to be advantageous to do that." The people of the South American region of Amazonia have some very interesting ways of lying, according to Everett. The language of the Piraha, the group that Everett has worked with the most in his research in the region, has verbs that have "two to the 16th power possible verb forms." Included within the verb suffixes are things called "evidentials," according to Everett, which the speaker uses to support the subject and explain whether he or she saw it, overheard it or deduced it.

Everett said such a system is great for lying because people can be made to think a certain way just by the inflection in the voice. "If you tell somebody what you saw and that's just part of the verb inflection," he explained, "then they will assume you saw it when you didn't." The grammar of a language is the "code," Everett said, and the tone the "channels of the code." Members of the Piraha actually can whistle their language, which is how its men communicate when hunting in the jungle.

The Piraha are not alone in their whistled communication. There are a handful of languages in the world in which full conversations, unrestricted as to subject matter, can be carried out by whistling. None of them, though, permit women to whistle, for reasons Everett does not understand.

"There is no culture known in which women are allowed to whistle as a normal response or activity," he said. "That's something I have no explanation for, maybe because it is so trivial that no one has ever thought about it." In Amazonia, Everett has witnessed two extremes in communication. Some groups control conversations using six-foot long "rain forest" stick with seeds inside that, when turned, make the sound of rain. One person will turn the stick and talk until the seeds stop falling, then hand it to another person who is given the same opportunity to speak.

At the other extreme are tribes in which everybody speaks at once. "I tried to figure out what the rules are for that and can't find any," said Everett. "They just seem to talk at once. In that respect, they're like a faculty meeting." Members of the Piraha believe language is both to communicate and express thoughts. That view shows in the two terms they use for the language, Everett said. When the language is being spoken it is described by tribal members using a term that means "the straight head," or "that which comes out of the head and is straight," according to Everett. English to them is "the crooked head." While a person is speaking the tribe's language, that person is said to have a "pretty mouth." When a person is speaking English or some other language, they have a "sour mouth." Such terms both communicate and express thoughts, according to Everett.

"The nature of communication is something vital to us as humans," Everett added. "How it operates in our society might seem on the surface very different from the way that it operates in other societies, but it is nevertheless vital to study those other societies if we want to have a better understanding of the universal cognitive and cultural basis for communication." –Mike Sajna

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