Cultural constraints on Aharip grammar

Recent research on Aharip, one of the typologically remarkable languages of the Mt. Iso area of Papua New Guinea, has revealed striking evidence in support of recent proposals that a people’s culture can significantly affect the grammar of the language spoken by that people (Everett 2005). In particular, the culture of the Aharip, who live between the 300 and 400 meter isoclines of Mt. Iso, appears to prohibit any direct reference to immediate experience. Instead Aharip culture appears to be governed by a ‘Distant Experience Principle’ (DEP).

The cultural and grammatical consequence of the DEP are wide-ranging, including a tense system that distinguishes only distant future and distant past tenses. One of the most remarkable findings regarding Aharip grammar, however, is the absence of any grammatical structures lacking recursion.

All sentences in Ahirip are minimally biclausal, consisting of a main clause and and a subordinate clause. Concepts that are typically expressable monoclausally in most human languages are expressed in Aharip as subordinate clauses to a large class of speech act verbs, verbs of perception, or verbs of cognition.

Obligatory recursion is also found in possessive constructions. Thus, no expression directly corresponding to ‘my foot’ exists in Aharip, and must instead by expressed by an expression like `my brother’s brother’s foot’. Indeed, it appears that eloquence is Aharip society is measured by a speaker’s ability to employ recursion to create sentences so long that his or her interlocutor loses consciousness before they are complete.

The Aharip numeral system also shows the consequences of the DEP, in that it consists solely of transfinite numbers and infinitesimals.

As far as linguistic anthropologists have been able to determine, all Aharip utterances consist of quotations of creation myths and science fiction novels, the meanings of which are inferred on the basis of culture-specific communicative maxims, including the Maxim of Vast Quantities. This shows that the results reported by Picard et al. are not limited to extra-terrestrial languages, but apply to human ones also.

It is not clear how these results regarding Aharip culture and grammar are related to the previous results linking phonological inventories in Diuwe and Hidbap to altitude, although psychologists speculated that the fact that heavy clouds at the 300 meter isocline block the views of Aharip speakers of everything but distant mountain peaks may have exerted a significant effect on Aharip culture.


Everett, Daniel. 2005. Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current Anthropology. 46 (4): 621-646.

10 thoughts on “Cultural constraints on Aharip grammar

  1. muy interesante, habría que estudiar ahora lo que pasa con una lengua completamente opuesta a esta: el samingo, lengua más bien gobernada por el NEP y que, según recuerdo de mis clases de Lingüística en los ochentas, se habla solo los sábados y domingos

  2. I am grateful to Henry, Mark, and Nila for recognizing that this was indeed satirical. Believe it or not, I have received some hints that indicate that this fact was not entirely clear to all readers :). I have added a ‘humor’ category to the site to avoid future confusion.

    Thanks, Mark, btw, for taking the initiative to get the ball rolling on Claire’s initial suggestion.

    Nila, he escuchado que el samingo se puede hablar solamente si uno ha tomado una cantidad suficiente de pisco sour. Es cierto ;)?

  3. Great satire. Are you familiar with Jadran Mimica’s Intimations of Infinity (Oxford: Berg, 1988)? Among its more controversial (and non-satirical) claims is that the Iqwaye of Papua New Guinea developed transfinite number concepts on the basis that one informant used the same word for ‘man’ as ‘one’, ‘twenty’ and ‘four hundred’.

  4. Oh wow. That work of Mimica’s sounds really… um, interesting. Thanks for mentioning it — it sounds entertaining.

  5. Yeah, ‘interesting’ would be how I would describe it also, in my kinder moments. The argument is more complex than I’ve made it out to be, but that’s what it seems to boil down to.

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