Language as a Tool: Analysing the Pirahã

Language is a tool. Like all tools, it exists to solve a problem. Philosophy is also a tool, aimed at identifying and, hopefully, elucidating problems. But tools only arise when there is a function for them. This is the same for language and philosophy. Kwasi Wiredu argued that some philosophical problems may be ‘tongue-dependent’ (Wiredu, 2004: 49). To illustrate, he used the Akan language and its problem in understanding the Cartesian conception of the mind (Wiredu, 1996: 17). The aim of this essay is to determine if this is a genuine case, but then expanding to an even more meaningful example in the Pirahã language.

First, this essay will be examining Wiredu’s exploration of tongue-dependent philosophical problems, and then expanding upon his idea with an investigation into Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã people, revealing a language that may not be capable of articulating a wide swathe of philosophical problems. Then I will be concluding by arguing that the nature of language is that of an evolutionary tool, which develops to fulfil the needs of its cultural context. Thus, there are philosophical problems that are tongue-dependent, as illustrated by the Pirahã, who cannot articulate abstract concepts, barring them from much of the discipline of philosophy.

Wiredu demonstrates a language that has a problem with a particular philosophical problem in his example of Akan and its conception of the mind and thought. In English, and other languages, ‘mind’ and ‘thought’ are seen as related, but distinct. The mind is a property of a human, perhaps enabling thought, but not necessarily. What this distinction between the terms enables is a philosophical questioning of the relation of our mind (physical or metaphysical) to our thoughts, which are mostly assumed to be non-physical. The reasons that European languages tended to create this disjuncture between mind and thought is an interesting anthropological question. Briefly, we may find its origin in the Platonic forms, which transferred into the Christian mythos of separation between our physical and non-physical selves. Thus, the European context formed a distinction between the concepts to solve this problem. In Akan, there is no distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘thought’ (Wiredu, 1996: 16). Both are seen as a function of a human, and not a property (Wiredu, 1996: 17). Because of this, Wiredu states that he wasn’t drawn to Cartesian conceptions of the mind, which placed the mind as a separate entity from our physical selves (Wiredu, 1996: 17).

What this demonstrates is that words have limitations. We can, of course, break those limitations, but need to consciously do so. Otherwise, we may not be able to articulate ideas of which the inventory of our language is not prepared for. Akan does not have the words capable of expressing Cartesianism, or other equivalent philosophies of the mind, but as is demonstrated in other languages, it can develop if it needs to. The Akan language did not develop a distinction between mind and thought because there was probably no need to do so. In all likelihood, no Akan philosopher had decided to investigate the mind itself (in the manner of the European philosophers) and the society probably had no need or interest in doing so. Thus, the language became ill equipped to articulate the foreign ideas of Cartesianism and co. This does not mean the speakers are incapable of understanding the ideas. On the contrary, Wiredu demonstrates an understanding of Cartesianism and a self-explanatory understanding of the English distinction between mind and thought. What is not clear from this example is if his understanding comes from his understanding of English, or if English only allows him to articulate an idea that was already present within his mind. But that is a topic for another essay.

In addition to trouble expressing a mind/thought distinction, Akan can turn a valuable philosophical formula in English to mere tautology due to the different meanings of words. In English, truth and fact are distinct. The formula that one can use to derive truth from fact is seen as philosophically valuable. In Akan, truth and fact have the same word and meaning. In English, the formula would be P if Q, in Akan the formula becomes P if P – a tautology (Wiredu, 2004: 48). Therefore, even some formulas are untranslatable into some tongues.

Wiredu suggests that all languages can, hypothetically, generate tongue-dependent problems, due to the differences in our languages and our capacity to articulate problems that we haven’t faced (Wiredu, 2004: 49). While Wiredu states that this is not an advocacy of relativism, he does urge philosophers and others to be careful when dealing with other languages, for meaning may be objective, but our ability to articulate it may differ so much as to change the meaning in the ears of others.

Wiredu’s example of Akan makes a persuasive argument for philosophical problems being tongue-dependent, but there is an even more profound example to be found in the Pirahã people of South America that illustrates not only a language that cannot fathom certain concepts, but also suggests why that may be the case.

Linguist and, at the time, missionary, Daniel Everett, shook the linguistic world with his investigation of the Pirahã people. The experience was so ground-breaking that it even led to Everett’s renouncing of his faith. The Pirahã language and culture were unique among others for its complete lack of acknowledgement of anything that isn’t an immediate experience. Everett described them as “ultra empiricists” (Nelson, 2011). The ramifications of this property of the language is that the Pirahã lack any articulatable conception of numbers, colours, creation myths or even history (McCrum & Everett, 2012). The culture of the people shuns non-immediate experiences, and the language does not allow for the articulation of long-term elements or abstract concepts. For instance, they have no concept of colours, but will describe objects using whatever other descriptor is within their vocabulary at the time (Bower, 2005: 377). As an example, they would describe red as blood-like, rather than creating a word to describe the overarching idea of the colour red.

This lack of abstract vocabulary prevents a wide range of philosophical problems from being articulated. Without numbers, one cannot delve into the philosophy of mathematics, or other social sciences, such as economics. A refusal and inability to record and interact with history also poses a limit on intellectual progression, as immediate experiences are lost to time. Above all this, a refusal to articulate the abstract or remote makes delving into much of philosophy impossible. Arguments about God, the Platonic forms, logic, and much more, are not articulatable in the Pirahã language and culture. This is simply due to the fact that the language has not developed any words to describe these meanings.

Everett and the case of the Pirahã is very controversial. This is mostly due to the Pirahã case overturning the linguistic orthodoxy of Chomsky’s universal grammar (Everett, 2016). These critiques are mostly linguistic in nature, but some may be of interest to the philosopher of language. Peter Gordon (a psycholinguist) argued that the Pirahã did have number-words, but just limited to small amounts. Everett rebutted that Gordon misunderstood the words that did refer to quantity, but not to specific amounts as we would think of them (Bower, 2005: 376). Even if Gordon’s claim was true, the Pirahã still do not have any words referring to the abstract numerical concepts. The equivalent of ‘one’ can only mean a singular object, never the idea of an independent abstract entity or something related to other abstract entities. For this reason, counting is also a concept that is not dealt with due to a lack of words to describe the process. Two, three, four apples are never the exact number, but simply a description such as ‘some apples’.

Another criticism of Everett’s argument is that Pirahã have demonstrated the ability to learn concepts not present in their language (Everett, 2016). Everett doesn’t actually disagree with this, and thinks that the Pirahã may even have general ideas outside of their language, but are unable to articulate them (Bower, 2005: 377). This criticism actually supports the argument of this essay that Pirahã demonstrates that philosophical problems are tongue-dependent. Pirahã who are brought up with other languages are able to articulate problems and ideas not present in their home language. This is similar to Wiredu’s case where his bilingualism with English and Akan has allowed him to delve into ideas that would be incomprehensible and worthless in his own language. Simply, Pirahã, as humans, are able to delve into these philosophical problems, but only with a medium (language) that has the inventory to articulate the problem – thus furthering the idea that tongue-dependency is persuasive.

The Pirahã case demonstrate to us an important aspect of the nature of language. Simply, we use language to transfer ideas, but if those ideas aren’t present in our culture or context, we have no need to develop a word for said idea. Everett argues that culture shapes language (Bower, 2005: 376). Their grammar reflects the importance of immediate experiences and their words reflect their cultural values (Everett, 2016). The same can be seen in other languages. Many languages have singular words or phrases that are non-translatable into other languages. Often, we can translate the gist, but only due to a merging of our human communities. As Everett said, “”the fundamental building block of language is community” (McCrum & Everett, 2012). We develop language from a need to transfer our ideas to one another. Without a desire to communicate with others, we would not feel the need to develop language. The Pirahã saw no need to communicate with outsiders (Everett, 2016), so did not seek to adapt their own language to be able to translate foreign ideas. They did not see the need to understand foreign ideas as a problem, so did not develop a solution within their language. The language thus developed to solve their problems within their context. This context formed their culture of immediate experiences and the ensuing language reflected that culture.

Philosophy, or more specifically, individual philosophical problems, are a factor within certain cultures and contexts. Language develops as a result of these contexts. Without the need to describe or communicate a certain problem, or any exposure to it, language may not be adequate to communicate that philosophical problem. The Platonic influence on Christianity created a problem of understanding the otherworldly. No such influence on Pirahã and Akan left them without a need to develop the vocabulary to deal with such a problem. In this way, while language is important for the comprehension and development of philosophy, philosophy may very well inform the development of language. Without the presence of the ideas that shape our ideologies and cultures today, we have no foundation to describe a myriad of ideas and concepts. With no idea comes no need to name the idea. Thus, without a context or culture that deals with the abstract, the Pirahã have no names for abstract concepts, entrenching the abstract and the remote away from their culture – continuing the cycle of philosophy, language and then philosophy again.

This essay aimed to demonstrate that Wiredu’s argument that philosophical problems may be tongue-dependent is true. It has succeeded in showing this, initially, through the example of Akan, which presents a problem of differing word meanings and a lack of vocabulary distinctions and how this may lead to an inability to articulate ideas such as Cartesianism or some notions of formal logic. This idea was expanded with the case of Pirahã, a language with no notion of the abstract or remote. It is intuitive to see that this lack of ability to articulate that which isn’t immediately experienced may limit the language’s ability to articulate and explore philosophical problems. What this leads to is a fundamental notion of the nature of language – that it is a product of cultural values, that are further a product of our context and environment. Ultimately, the cases of Pirahã and Akan are more than persuasive enough to conclude that philosophical problems are tongue-dependent.


Bower, B., 2005. The Pirahã Challenge. Science News, 168(24), 376-377.

Everett, D., 2016. Chomsky, Wolfe and me. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2017].

McCrum, R. & Everett, D., 2012. Daniel Everett: ‘There is no such thing as universal grammar’. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2017].

Nelson, B., 2011. Trust as a truth-maker. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 2017].

Wiredu, K., 1996. A Philosophical Perspective on the Concept of Human Communication. In Cultural Universals and Particulars. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 13-20.

Wiredu, K., 2004. Truth and an African Language. In L.M. Brown, ed. African Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press. 35-50.