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The Pirahã Challenge

An Amazonian tribe takes grammar to a strange place

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2:43pm, December 4, 2005

When Daniel L. Everett and his wife Keren Everett started spending 6 to 8 months each year with the Pirahã people of Brazil's Amazon rain forest in 1977, they hoped to decipher a language that had long stumped missionaries in the region. By 1980, the two outsiders spoke the native tongue well enough to field an intriguing proposal from villagers: to teach them to count and to read. The villagers hoped that counting would prevent them from getting cheated when trading Brazil nuts and other goods for products such as tobacco and whiskey ferried through the area by Portuguese riverboat owners.

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