Daniel Everett’s recent Long Now talk about endangered languages (writeup, mp3) includes this gem reported by Stewart Brand:

Among other things, the wide variety of verb forms are used to account for the directness of evidence for a statement. Everett originally went to the Pirahã in 1977 as a Christian missionary. They challenged him to provide evidence for the existence of Jesus, and lost interest when he couldn’t. Eventually so did he. The Pirahã made him an atheist.

This is so interesting that it’s worth unpacking for those who won’t have time to listen. Among the sixteen suffixes for verbs, there are three that convey the source of evidence:

I heard that Dan went fishing.

I saw Dan go fishing.

I deduce, from the available evidence, that Dan went fishing.

These assertions might not be true. The Pirahã, being human, do sometimes lie. But I love the idea of a culture in which evidence-based thinking is baked into the language.

There are only a few hundred Pirahã, and their language is only one of thousands — more than half unwritten — that are endangered. The talk ends with plea to preserve and document those languages.

It has never been easier to capture and disseminate recorded audio, or to collaboratively curate such material, so I hope these capabilities will be put to good use in the quest to preserve linguistic diversity.

But no matter what, we’re going to continue to lose languages. Maybe, though, if we can identify some of the ways of thinking encoded in those languages, we can carry them forward.

Respect for the source of evidence is a great example. I could have simply told you about what Daniel Everett said, and what Stewart Brand wrote about what Daniel Everett said. But it was possible to form links to the audio and text, so I did.

I wonder how many other best practices are encoded in those thousands of endangered languages. And I wonder if it might be possible to identify and catalog more of them.