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Correlation and causation

I recently read this wonderful book "Don't sleep, there are snakes" by Daniel Everett.  It describes the author's life in the Amazon with the Pirahas, their language, and their culture.  Apparently, he once missed the greens and asked for a shipment from his friend.  He was caught in the act of having Salad by one of his Piraha friends.  The Piraha was bewildered that Daniel Everett was eating leaves and enquired if he didn't have any meat.  When Everett said he had, but he loves these leaves the Piraha responded: "Piraha's don't eat leaves.  this is why you don't speak our language well.  We Pirahas speak our language well and we don't eat leaves". Notice the striking similarity with what I had talked about in an earlier post.

Everett, being a scientist, was clearly aware that correlation and causation are not the same.  But apparently, the words continued to nag him as if they had something useful in it.  I believe, the respect he had for the Pirahas and their culture and him being their student (learning their language) had a significant role in this.  On the other hand, no one watching Punjabi house thought Ramanan (the character from Punjabi house I was talking about in the earlier post) as anything more than an idiot.  He later observed that the Pirahas would converse with him and then turn to one another, and in his presence talk about him as though he was not present.

"Dan, do you have matches?"
"Yes, take it."
Pirahas among themselves: "now I will ask him for clothes"
To Daniel: "Do you have clothes?"

Why would they talk about him like this as if he could not understand them?  He had clearly demonstrated that he could.  He concludes, for the Pirahas, him being able to respond to them in their language was not proof that he could understand their language.  He was like the bright macaw that is so abundant in the Amazon - it was just a cute trick.  For them, to speak their language is to live their culture.  He is not claiming the Pirahas have a theory (or do not have a theory) of the relation between language and culture.  But, their questions and actions served as a catalyst for his thoughts.  And these ideas are his most important contributions to linguistics and science at large.

If only we too could treat Ramanan and others like him with more respect!


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