General Discussion > Linguistics

"The Grammar of Happiness" or "Noam Chomsky was Wrong"

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Seze Mune:
Linguists amongst us are probably already aware of this story.  To me, it's all new.

It's a story about a language that's relatively new to the linguistic world, one which is spoken by an obscure tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil.  It's called Piraha (with some sort of diacritic over the final 'a') and the controvery swirls around whether it contains recursion or not. Chomsky says ALL languages do.  One man claims Piraha does not, and therein lies the controversy.

As far as I can understand it, linguistic recursion is the insertion of additional information within an already complete sentence.  One example of adjectival recursion I found is the story of "The House that Jack Built".  Each succeeding sentence includes an additional clause which further modifies the original sentence.  "This is the House that Jack built.  This is the malt that sat in the house that Jack built.  This is the rat that ate the malt that sat in the house that Jack built.  This is the cat that ate the rat that ate the malt that sat in the house that Jack built."  I think you get it.  Na'vi, it seems, is recursive, is it not?

So here's the controversy:

   
"In 2005 Dr. Everett shot to international prominence with a paper claiming that he had identified some peculiar features of the Pirahã language that challenged Noam Chomsky's influential theory, first proposed in the 1950s, that human language is governed by "universal grammar," a genetically determined capacity that imposes the same fundamental shape on all the world's tongues.

"The paper, published in the journal Current Anthropology, turned him into something of a popular hero but a professional lightning rod, embraced in the press as a giant killer who had felled the mighty Chomsky but denounced by some fellow linguists as a fraud, an attention seeker or worse, promoting dubious ideas about a powerless indigenous group while refusing to release his data to skeptics.

"The controversy has been simmering in journals and at conferences ever since, fed by a slow trickle of findings by researchers who have followed Dr. Everett's path down to the Amazon. In a telephone interview Dr. Everett, 60, who is the dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., insisted that he's not trying to pick a fresh fight, let alone present himself as a rival to the man he calls "the smartest person I've ever met."

"I'm a small fish in the sea," he said, adding, "I do not put myself at Chomsky's level." 

For the rest of the article:  A New Book and Film About Rare Amazonian Language

Still, he doesn't shy from making big claims for "Language: The Cultural Tool," published last week by Pantheon. "I am going beyond my work with Pirahã and systematically dismantling the evidence in favor of a language instinct," he said. "I suspect it will be extremely controversial."

Vur’evenge:
Very cool, ma Seze!  Irayo!  I found another on Everett and his study. Here: Daniel Everett disputes Chomsky.

"Daniel Everett who lived a large part of his life with the Piranhas managed to master the language. His mission was to learn the Piranha language, translate the Bible into Piranha and convert the tribe into Christianity. But as he kept observing their life style he really got impressed by their philosophy and instead of converting them into Christianity he lost his own faith in Christianity. The life style and the way they think are unique and they are the ones who lead the happiest lives on this earth. They don't think about tomorrow, they always live in present, they don't have the habit of preserving or storing food for future use, they don't believe in God, in fact they believe anything only after they see it with their own eyes or described by a fellow tribes man who saw it."

I'm going to order Everett's book, "Don't Sleep There are Snakes".  I'm prepared to be fascinated.  I've studied language acquisition theories... not a lot of Chomsky... (Chomsky on politics though for sure), a lot of general semantics, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis on language and thought relativity.  Ever controversial their work still, and pretty much also in conflict with Chomsky's universals. And the sacred cows are restive. They moo anxiously. A tad tangentially, I've always wanted to own a complete set - bound- of the OED, and I can now afford to buy it. 

"According to Whorf the Hopi language does not contain any words, grammatical constructions or expressions that refer to the English concept of ‘time.’  Whorf goes on to explain that it is possible in the Hopi language to express the world or reality in ways other than what many languages refer to as ‘time.’  The Hopi view of reality is specific to the language and can only be best expressed if one is familiar with the language. (from here.)

I don't recall reading about Sapir and Whorf ideas about language recursion.  Must. Investigate.   ;)

Eywa ngahu, ma 'eylan

Vur’evenge:
Oooh!  Logged off, logged back in because I was still searching on Everett, Sapir-Whorf, and found this coolness

Excerpt: "His initial goal was to translate the Bible. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics along the way and, in 1984, spent a year studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an office near Chomsky’s. He was a true-blue Chomskyan then, so much so that his kids grew up thinking Chomsky was more saint than professor."

wm.annis:
I just read Everett's new book last week.  It is a very thorough book, but it can be a little dry in places, and if you know some linguistics already a little repetitive (he has to define things regularly for a non-linguistic audience, sometimes more than once).  I recommend Don't Sleep, There are Snakes to everyone — it's a great read, both informative and entertaining.

Regarding Sapri-Whorf, it is important to note that Everett absolutely does not support that, nor does what he's saying about Pirahã.  His central point, in fact, is exactly the opposite — culture and cognition shape language.  Also, modern linguists working with Hopi vigorously dispute Whorf's idea that it contains no grammatical constructions that refer to time.

Seze Mune:

You guys know a lot more than I do about this, and I'm really pleased for the book recommendations! I'm adding those to my reading list which includes The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking.

I am only musing here, but it seems concepts of time must be bound up with the experience of being alive versus being dead.  If a language does not have time referents, then how does one refer to anything which happened during the life of an individual now dead? 

Unless one lives in the Spacious Present (which seems to be concommitant with quantum theories) there is a 'before' and an 'after'.

I could posit a cultural consciousness which restructures personal experience to something quite alien to most of us; perhaps that is what underlies Everett's conversion.  I am really curious to know more about this now.  Who wouldn't like to be happier?  ;)

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