Monday, March 08, 2010

how cultural that is

“One morning, while applying bug repellent, I was watched by an older Pirahã man, who asked Everett what I was doing. Eager to communicate with him in sign language, I pressed together the thumb and index finger of my right hand and weaved them through the air while making a buzzing sound with my mouth. Then I brought my fingers to my forearm and slapped the spot where my fingers had alighted. The man looked puzzled and said to Everett, 'He hit himself.' I tried again—this time making a more insistent buzzing. The man said to Everett, 'A plane landed on his arm.' When Everett explained to him what I was doing, the man studied me with a look of pitying contempt, then turned away. Everett laughed. 'You were trying to tell him something about your general state—that bugs bother you,' he said. 'They never talk that way, and they could never understand it. Bugs are a part of life.'

“'O.K.,' I said. 'But I’m surprised he didn’t know I was imitating an insect.'

“'Think of how cultural that is,' Everett said. 'The movement of your hand. The sound. Even the way we represent animals is cultural.'”

--John Colapinto, “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?”, The New Yorker, 2007 April 16

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