Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?

John Colapinto has a fantastic article in the current New Yorker (not online) about the Pirahã tribe in the rainforest of northwest Brazil.

His subject is Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, who has done what few linguists dare to do: publicly challenge and refute Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar by documenting the rare and incredibly simple language of the Piraha. Their language has no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for "all," "each," "every," "most," or "few". There is no recursion.

Chomsky’s UG theory says that language is an organ, like a leg or an arm, and that it starts to grow the moment we pop out of the womb. In other words, all humans share a universal grammar. All utterances are composed of universal chunks of grammar within other chunks within other chunks (the Piraha have no such recursion).

The Piraha have a fascinating language structure: all of their words are relative to what they can immediately experience. They only talk and think about things they can see. They don’t abstract about future or past events. Consequently, they don’t hunt and store food for more than a day or two at a time. A key explanation is, "It’s the way it’s always been" (instead of analyzing the past to help explain the present). Everett calls this the "immediacy-of-experience" principle — they are wholly dedicated to the empirical reality that they can observe right now.

There are a few takeaways for me here:

1. It’s fun to read about people who don’t live in modern civilization. I want more pictures and more narrative journalism!

2. This is a great example of the dynamics of an industry or discipline when one person wields disproportionate influence. Everett implies that Chomsky dismisses contrarian views with a wave of his arm and — thanks to his reputation — people nod and move on without a wink of evidence. I think it’s the responsibility of any person who commands influence — be it a CEO in a large company, a notable entrepreneur in a smaller ecosystem (like Boulder, where I lived for three months), or a leading researcher in her field — to be proactive about encouraging views different from their own.

3. Linguistics, at an amateur level, is really interesting.

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