(that which comes out of the head) is the
term by which the Pirahã refer to their language.
The Pirahã language was classified as a member
of the Mura family by Nimuendajú (1982a). Henrichs
(1964) classified it as tonal. Everett has analyzed
the language in numerous works (cf. 1979, 1983, 1985a,
1985b, 1986a, 1986b).
A tonal language is characterized by its manipulation
of supra-segmental resources (the relation between tones)
in order to establish meanings. Thus on the basis of
tones, the Pirahã can generate specific modes
of communication: by means of cries, whistles, and eating-speech.
Cries enable communication over a large distance and
are generally used to converse while they are navigating
in one or more canoes on the river. Communication by
means of whistles occurs during expeditions in the forest
or on rivers, when voiced speech could risk undermining
the expeditions objective. Everett (1983) documented
that the whistles follow tones and not a standardized
tonality that establishes a meaning. In this way, the
Pirahã are capable of providing words and even
phrases through the recourse to whistles. Eating-speech
is a third possibility for establishing communication
by means of tones: they can continue talking while chewing
Most men understand Portuguese, though not
all of them are able to express themselves in the language.
Women have little understanding of Portuguese and never
use it as a form of expression. The men developed a
contact language allowing them to communicate
with regional populations, mixing words from Pirahã,
Portuguese and the Amazonian língua geral (a
Tupi-based trade language more commonly known as nheengatu).