Friday, October 18, 2013

A language that can be whistled or hummed

This piece in Slate led me to Pirahã, an Amazonian language with odd characteristics: no numbers, no colors, and very few consonants and vowels. The simplicity of sounds is compensated by complex tones, stresses, and syllable lengths, such that speakers can supposedly converse  entirely with whistles or humming. Astonishing, if true: I wonder sometimes how many of these amazing anthropological discoveries are simply natives playing jokes on credulous adventurers. Still, in the context of the "music is a language" idea, here we have a natural language which can not only be entirely translated into music, but which itself remains entirely comprehensible if the non-musical aspects (ie ordinary phonemes) are removed. Wow. There's also a long New Yorker piece from 2007 that the Slate story is based on.

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