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.

5 comments on “Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?
  • I suspect you will enjoy both http://www.languagelog.com blog as well as the book ‘Spoken here’,which regales stories of lesser known languages. For instance, one Eastern Indian language has a word for ‘falling unknowingly into the well’.

    As for your point 2. above, it routinely happens to many ‘great people’. I once raised my hand and asked a question of a speaker, widely considered a re-engineering ‘guru’ (a word, the abuse of which riles me greatly as someone, whose language is where the word came from), and the room fell into a hushed silence. I had been actively discouraged by people at my table; they said my question will look like I am trying to ‘catch him out’.

    In case you are wondering if I got a response, I did not. The ‘expert’ pretended he did not hear my question and took on another raised hand in another part of the room.

    Dialogue and challenge are two-way streets and the soi-disant experts are as guilty of suppressing debate as those, who keep schtum as they feel the afterglow of being in the presence of such a person. In my view such reverence could be given to the only one with a track record of clear thinking, and one that cannot be matched even in this era of longevity (he lived through almost the whole of the last century). His name was Peter Drucker. All else is recycling, re-labelling…

  • In many circles, Chomsky has been irrelevant for a long time. Only the hardcore evolutionary psychologists persist in the face of overwhelming evidence that language and syntax are not innate.

  • Ben:
    If you have not read Ludvig Wittgenstein, it might help to put this debate in linguistics into a larger context–epistemology. Theory of knowledge has been interesting for thousands of years. Not surprising that it fascinates you.

  • Interesting.
    Wonder if it’s true?
    You see, often outsiders misunderstand these things.
    One truly doubts that there is no way to express past and present…if not in the language, perhaps in the tone or an accompaning hand gesture.

    as for not storing food, that is a problem of the tropics. It goes bad. It might not be because they don’t see a need for the future, but because rotten food attracts prey.

  • “this the `immediacy-of-experience’ principle — they are wholly dedicated to the empirical reality that they can observe right now.” Isn’t it too good to be that real, Ben ?

    If that’s the way it is, the world has a lot of learning to do from the Pirahas. I couldn’t stop marveling at their unique neural design (calls for wider adoption) than cast it aside simply as a different *linguistic* attribute.

    I call it unique because the neural network has the ability to erase memory instantly, yields no premonition about future, so that everything stays in just PRESENT PERFECT. It’s a moniker for a way of life that symbolizes absolute bliss ( no haunting past, not worried about future)…Wow…!!!

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