1 June 2007

Language, culture and universal grammar

The second part of a radio program on Pirahã by Hannu Reime, broadcast on Radio Channel 1 of the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, June 1st, 2007. 

Our topic last week was the somewhat sensational attention that has recently been given to a small South American tribe Pirahã and their language, also called Pirahã. They are a tiny hunter-gatherer group who live on the river Maici in North Western Brazil. The US linguist Daniel Everett, who's well-versed in the Pirahã culture and speaks their language fluently, claimed that Pirahã differs radically from other human languages, and the difference is due to the Pirahã culture. An important feature of this culture can be summarized by what Everett calls the Principle of Immediate Experience.

Everett's claims drew attention from all over the world. Articles on the Pirahã were published in newspapers and magazines, and in this age of the Internet, there has been lively discussion taking place on the web pages. The most important reason for this interest is surely the simple fact that everything that is different or is believed to be such gets more attention than what is “normal” and well-known. The counter-claim by Everett's critics that Pirahã is a normal human language among others, neither more nor less, does not sound as interesting and newsworthy.

So Helsingin Sanomat wrote on its science pages that “scholars didn't previously think it was possible to find as restricted a culture and language as Pirahã.” The paper writes that there are no numerals in Pirahã, its sound inventory is very small, and there are no subordinate clauses in the language.

The writer of the HS Pirahã story made an even more sensational claim than his original source. He quotes Everett as saying that “we are forced to admit that Pirahã is a primitive language.” This must be a misunderstanding, because in his original article in Current Anthropology Dan Everett writes that “no-one should draw the conclusion (…) that Pirahã language is in any way ‘primitive'.” It's verbal morphology is “the most complex (…) I'm aware of”, Everett wrote.  

As to the rather restricted sound inventory in Pirahã, it's true that this language has only eight consonants (seven in women's speech) and three vowels. On the other hand, the Pirahã prosody, its tone system, is very complicated. A song-like speech – or a speech-like song – is a part of the Pirahã culture:

[…Pirahã (spoken or sung)…]

It could very well be that the complex prosody compensates for the simple system of segmental sounds in Pirahã. But this, of course, is only a guess.

The bare fact that strange things get more attention than normal ones could well explain the attention given to Pirahã. But there might also be another, more specific reason that, perhaps, has something to do with the current Zeitgeist. Dan Everett has written that the structure of language is determined by culture, not the restrictions that come out of the structure of the human mind, from the brain and the central nervous system, from the biological heritage of humans. At the present time, the most famous defender of the biological approach to human language is Noam Chomsky who has given the name “Universal Grammar” to the theory of human language faculty. It is a theory which purports to explain “why my granddaughter acquires language but her pet kitten does not.” The term “universal grammar” or “general and reasonable grammar” has its root in the history of European thought, where it was used specifically in the 17th century by the French rationalists.

According to Dan Everett, Pirahã shows that there's no such thing as a universal grammar. It's not possible to speak significantly and interestingly of “just language”. Languages can differ one from the other without any limit. Language is totally determined by culture. A culture determines a language even to the extent that a translation can be impossible.

The target of Everett's theses is the modern research program initiated by Noam Chomsky and his colleagues, mainly at MIT. Chomsky himself is not only famous but also a controversial figure, both admired and hated. So New Scientist tells its readers that, according to Everett, Pirahã is “the final nail in the coffin of Noam Chomsky's hugely influential theory of universal grammar.” The Independent writes that Everett thinks Pirahã “strikes a devastating blow to Chomskian theory.” According to Helsingin Sanomat, “Chomsky's theory is in deep trouble” because of Pirahã. 

Chomsky himself has not commented on the Pirahã debate in any detail. He has only said that even those who deny the existence of universal grammar, accept it tacitly in one form or another. Otherwise, it would not be possible to say anything general about the human language. When I once interviewed Chomsky, I asked him where the boundary between what is culturally determined and what is biologically given goes in the human language. He answered that “culture is biologically given, too, so that's a little hard to answer.”

Chomsky has never denied the close connection between language and culture. Speaking last November on the topic “Why are there so many languages?” he started by referring to his recent visit in South America where he had met Mapuche, Aymara and Quechua activists. For them, the defense of their languages and cultures against 500 years of oppression is extremely important:

NC: When they speak of language, they have something much richer in mind than what I'm going to be talking about. That is not just the technical notion of “language” that scientists try to understand somehow, but rather language as a repository of cultural wealth, traditional understanding and practices, community solidarity, something more, like what Wittgenstein had in mind when he referred to the language as a way of life.

The most radical claim about Pirahã by Dan Everett is its alleged lack of subordination and, more generally, what is called recursion. The scholars who criticize Everett deny this. I asked David Pesetsky, one of the critics, what he would think if it really turned out that Pirahã lacks recursion, that Everett had it right, after all. It would then lack the property, found in all human languages up till now, that you can build larger structures out of smaller ones, and that syntactically they behave in the same way. So the expression “the car that was stolen last night” and “it” are identical at some level of analysis, at the level that is called phrase structure.

David Pesetsky wrote in a message that he would be “stunned and puzzled” if it turns out that there were no recursion in Pirahã, that is, this language would lack phrase structure. “It would mean they are just uttering isolated words, despite every appearance to the contrary. It would be like discovering that the Sun really does go around the Earth after all, and it's due to some complex cosmic hoax that the Copernican model looked like the right proposal all these years.”

There's no doubt that the debate on Pirahã will go on until a new nail in the coffin of universal grammar is found.   

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