Specializations > Typology and Descriptive Linguistics

"Uncontacted Peoples"

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Daniel:
First, some information:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLErPqqCC54 [short: just 3 minutes]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncontacted_peoples

I relatively recently came across this information. I wasn't aware that there was any specific term or specific knowledge of specific groups that fit into such a category, but it raises some very interesting questions, especially for linguists.


Questions:


* Why have these people not made contact? Is it out of fear or a desire to be isolated/independent? (I can't imagine being too happy if a group of Brazilians yelling in Portuguese I didn't understand invaded my apartment building to cut down trees!)
* Would it be a good idea to contact these people, if done properly, whatever that means? Maybe a linguist, someone who would relatively easily pick up their language, would make a good ambassador, just to establish communication, not to change their lifestyle without their consent.
* Are these groups as "uncontacted" as is claimed? Are they truly isolated, or do they just live in the forest while I live in a city? Have they always been that separated, or is that due to others (=Europeans) invading their territory?
* Do these people actually know anything about the societies around them? If they did, would they still avoid contact?
* Is it better to help them by informing them of modern technology (like medicine), or is it better to leave them alone? (Obviously we can all agree that forcing anything on them is bad.)
* Do you agree with the narrator in the video that these people should be left uncontacted? Or do you get the sense (at least on the one hand) that it's perhaps asking too much of them-- they're the last of their kind, we find them interesting, they shouldn't join society, because that would make the world less interesting. But what about in theory what would make them have the best lives (whatever that is)? Is it their burden to stay uncontacted?
* Is it certain that all of these peoples have the same genetic capacity for language that we do? Is it remotely possible we could find some different capacity in some of them? (There are broader implications beyond Linguistics, of course.)
* What linguistic data would be discovered upon contact? More of the same? More languages as apparently unique as Pirahã?
* Should linguists try to contact them?
* Ironically, would contact perhaps allow them more secure, still independent futures? If the national convernments were agreeable, contact could establish peaceful interaction and understanding and raise awareness, then they could be left (if they desire) alone. Sort of like neighbors-- you often know who they are and talk to them once in a while, but you don't always want to hang out.
These questions have no easy answers, but they're interesting to think about.


This reminds me of the case of Easter Island (the Rapa Nui). [You might notice my avatar...]
If you don't know the full story, I'd recommend reading about it. But in short, with food and other natural resources dwindling dangerously low, the Rapa Nui were headed for extinction by starvation. And although they may have had ancestral knowledge of a larger world out there, Easter Island is one of the most remote inhabited locations on earth-- a 5 hour flight from Santiago de Chile, and without anything else much closer-- over 1000 miles of ocean in all directions I believe.
Then in the early 1700s, Europeans arrived (eventually leading to Easter Island being considered part of Chile). They quite literally saved the people from starvation. But they mistreated them horribly (about what you'd expect from Europeans at the time).
So, is contact really a bad thing? What if the contacters didn't mistreat them? Or even allow them independence with basic communication established? Lots of conflicting principles here.

lx:
I remember when I first saw that video three years ago. It gave me chills as it still does today. The idea that there are communities of people who just live so primitively. We have a web of communication where I can use written language and someone on the other side of the world can read my message, yet these people live the same way my ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago. How can it be that they have never had any sort of contact? Can they speak like we do? What is their language like? There are so many tantalising questions to be answered.

There are stories of people wandering into tribes in Papua New Guinea and making contact, and that wasn't always a bad thing. I can imagine after contact is made, that will be the end of their way of life as we know it, and maybe it would be a shame to lose a community that does live like that. Having said that, the budding scientist in me would want to know their DNA ancestry, linguistic capacity/capabilities and more information on how they live. Their reaction to the plane is just priceless. I can't even imagine what was going through their mind when they saw it. The northern lights were out in force on Saturday and all I could think about was what middle-aged tribesmen thought was going on in the sky when they saw similar things. I know a few people who study the Icelandic sagas. I'm going to ask them if there is anything written in them about what they thought was going on. But in a similar way, imagine having seen that plane, they construed a belief of a flying God or something like that.

I think it'd be really good to drop a few hot mics in the area and see what was picked up. Imagine being able to establish a connection to a local native American language from a thousand years ago or something like that.

Daniel:
Agreed!


--- Quote ---I can imagine after contact is made, that will be the end of their way of life as we know it, and maybe it would be a shame to lose a community that does live like that.
--- End quote ---
This is the assumption in the video, and it's certainly possible.
But must it be the case?

The Pirahã are an interesting example here: they didn't want to be part of the greater Brazilian political/cultural scene, and they stayed isolated, though they did some basic trading and so forth-- they weren't "uncontacted". Fast forward a few years and some controversial linguistics research* later and now they have a Brazilian school with the kids learning Portuguese. That bothers me, because it was done to them, while Everett (whatever you think of his linguistic anaysis) was just contacting them (he realized early on that his goal of teaching and converting them was not going to work-- good for them!).

So we would want to have a situation where the Brazilian government doesn't actively try to modernize them.

But what if these people then had to the choice. They can stay there (that's fine by me) or they can move to Rio, whatever they want. But that doesn't directly correlate with contact... can someone have a friendly chat with them? (Admittedly they might not be open to it.)

[*The potential effect of Everett's research on the decisions by the Brazilian government is an interesting topic for another thread. In the general case (and without interference by Chomsky?? if that's actually true), linguistic research should not result in the government's intervention! I don't mean to imply it automatically does.]



Do let me know (reply here) what you find out about the Icelandic sagas!


And it's perfectly imaginable that with these people (even with their permission at some point) you could try the elevator experiment: walk into a room and let the doors close, then magically you are at a different height when the doors open. Such basic things about our world and our experience are completely foreign to those who don't have them.



--- Quote ---I think it'd be really good to drop a few hot mics in the area and see what was picked up. Imagine being able to establish a connection to a local native American language from a thousand years ago or something like that.
--- End quote ---
8) That's such an intriguing idea. Getting approval for this would be extremely difficult I imagine, but the data would be amazing.
I suppose these people need to be considered people that can give consent, so it could be done without their permission, so that defeats the whole point. After all, we would be invading their privacy.
But... I wish there was some way around that.



For the general discussion, one more thought:
"Knowledge is power."
Assuming that is true, and following from it all of our ideals about education, literacy and so forth being a good thing, isn't it the logical conclusion that we should educate these people?
I'm not saying that's actually a good conclusion, but if it's not, then we'd need to revisit the idea that knowledge is important, or perhaps what 'knowledge' means. (I'm sure they know many things we don't! Animals and plants in the area, for example.)

freknu:

--- Quote from: lx on December 20, 2013, 03:32:14 AM ---The northern lights were out in force on Saturday and all I could think about was what middle-aged tribesmen thought was going on in the sky when they saw similar things. I know a few people who study the Icelandic sagas. I'm going to ask them if there is anything written in them about what they thought was going on. But in a similar way, imagine having seen that plane, they construed a belief of a flying God or something like that.

--- End quote ---

It has been critised in academic review, but "Hamlet's Mill" makes for a very interesting argument of how the ancient people saw and mythologised the sky. When it comes to Old Norse mythology, Aurvandill is of particular interest.

Even though "Hamlet's Mill" may be scientifically tenuous, I do wonder just how much of ancient mythology comes from watching and marvelling at the sky.

zaba:

--- Quote ---For the general discussion, one more thought:
"Knowledge is power."
Assuming that is true, and following from it all of our ideals about education, literacy and so forth being a good thing, isn't it the logical conclusion that we should educate these people?
I'm not saying that's actually a good conclusion, but if it's not, then we'd need to revisit the idea that knowledge is important, or perhaps what 'knowledge' means. (I'm sure they know many things we don't! Animals and plants in the area, for example.)
--- End quote ---

You're presupposing that YOU are the one who HAS the knowledge. This is a very egocentric and patronizing perspective, with all due respect. Sure, you have different knowledge than they do and vice-versa -- but to extrapolate that it is your duty to educate (indoctrinate) them in literacy, the Bible, proper dietary habits, etc is ill-founded and downright offensive.

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