Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Favorite People

The Piraha are back in the news again. This fascinating Brazilian tribe of not more than 300 souls is especially notable for the way its language challenges certain assumptions behind Chomsky's theory of a Universal Grammar, a Language Organ, and by implication, perhaps, theories of Human Nature like those propounded by people like E.O. Wilson and Stephen Pinker.

Now, this is significant for a number of reasons. One of them is that this research was not directly undertaken by Daniel Everett, although his work inspired it. That's good because for many years Everett had been one of very few researchers in the Piraha language and, because language, tribe, and researcher all seem so exotic, accusations of his work being an elaborate hoax have been made. I suppose now that these accusations can definitively be put to rest.

Further, some of Everett's original claims, such as a complete lack of quantification in the language, seemed overstated--the Piraha can apparently "get across" quantificational meanings, even if they have no words for "some" or "all", or even if such quantifiers as they have are different and primitive with respect to those in, say, English. So, again, it is nice that third-party researchers have pointed to such an important peculiarity in the language.

Secondly, the work is important for the way in which it challenges Chomsky's ideas of a "Universal Grammar" and a "Language Organ". Essentially, in this idea the Language Organ is seen as an inference machine, a computer that is loaded with some version of First Order Logic elaborate enough to give you simple mathematics (as, for example, in Russel's Principia Mathematica). Thus, "number" should be present in all human languages.

And yet Piraha lacks this supposedly "universal design feature" (as I believe Everett calls it). Hence no Universal Grammar. And since a UG and, according to some (Fodor at one time), a universal lexicon are supposedly our heritage as a species, perhaps no Human Nature either.

A couple good places to start for more on the Piraha, who really are a fascinating people, are Everett's home page and this New Yorker article from last year.

(PS. when I say Mr. Everett is "exotic", I only mean eccentric. He has always cheerfully answered any email I sent him, and is a terrific advocate for the Piraha. And, as I say, the Piraha are wonderfully weird--natural empiricists, it seems, whose language has evolved in accordance with their extremely plain philosophy of living)

(PPS. The picture above is Mr. Everett and several Piraha men)

1 comment:

Steve Bloom said...

In certain circumstances (hunting and conflict, e.g.) it would be critical to distinguish between small quantities. How do they do it? Finger count?