The Pirahã Controversy — Part 1

Mar 21, 2012 by

Two articles have recently appeared in the popular press addressing the so-called Pirahã controversy, one in The Economist and another in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The authors of these two pieces, especially Tom Bartlett, the author of the CHE article, come off as hostile, brutal, spiteful, ridiculous, and childish. Oh wait, these are exactly the words he uses for us linguists. One thing I have to agree with in the CHE article, though, is that the topic deserves “a response beyond name-calling”. Here, I am trying to provide such a response. But before “asking whether Everett actually has it right”, as Tom Bartlett suggests we should, I want to use this post to mention the top-10 most glaring examples of misunderstanding, mix-ups, and “flaming” by the authors of these two articles. So here it goes, in no particular order.

  •  “But [Everett] argues that just because we are capable of language does not mean it is necessarily prewired.” No, it doesn’t. But the fact that we humans and only we are capable of language, and only of language being a certain way (for linguists, “within the bounds of Universal Grammar”) suggests that language is prewired. Studies of how children get from no language to native language further validate this hypothesis.
  • There is a strong assumption in both articles that conducting actual fieldwork and getting data from some obscure language spoken by a small group in an area without air conditioning or running water is somehow more valuable for the linguistic enterprise than working with a language spoken by millions in a more civilized part of the world. By why would data from Pirahã be more valuable in principle than data from, say, Russian? Are Russian minds less human? This assumption is not valid at all, as all human languages are spoken by people with human minds, all have peculiarities and subtleties of their own and all are equally interesting for linguists.
  • “The Pirahã language is remarkable in many respects. Entire conversations can be whistled, making it easier to communicate in the jungle while hunting. ” I am not sure why it makes Pirahã remarkable. Khoisan languages use clicks. American Sign Language uses certain types of gestures. So what?
  • “The Pirahã don’t use numbers. They have words for amounts, like a lot or a little, but nothing for five or one hundred.” This is not entirely true. The Pirahã may not have native words for exact numbers, though this is something that is hotly debated (I will come back to this in a forthcoming post). However, they are not unable to understand quantities or even to learn number words, as was shown by Karen Madera, Dan Everett’s former wife, who managed to teach the Pirahã borrowed number words. It is quite possible that the Pirahã do not bother with number words because they have little to count or care whether they have five or one hundred of.
  • “The Pirahã don’t embed phrases in other phrases. They instead speak only in short, simple sentences.” Actually, one can speak in relatively short and syntactically simple sentence and still use embedding, as in Karen’s sister’s husband has arrived. Here, a noun phrase Karen is embedded inside another noun phrase, Karen’s sister, inside another noun phrase, Karen’s sister’s husband. Another famous example of non-clausal embedding is The house that John built poem.
  • Not having a certain type of recursive structure does not mean that the language in question does not allow recursion in principle. As I will discuss in more detail in a later post, the type of possessor embedding mentioned in the previous bullet-point, Karen’s sister’s husband, is not possible in such otherwise perfectly recursive languages as German.
  • “Instead of unfolding in the same way in Paris and Papua New Guinea, languages are crafted by their speakers to meet their needs. ” And how exactly would languages be “crafted” by their speakers? At an elders’ meeting? Through a conscious effort to improve a language with, say, Subject-Object-Verb order by making it a Subject-Verb-Object one? Anybody but linguists actually pay attention to such things, consciously, that is? And this is not even the most subtle aspect of a language grammar! In fact, languages do “unfold in the same way in Paris and Papua New Guinea”: they are learned by small children from their parents, siblings, and others around them, by hypothesis formation, pattern discovery, analogy, trial-and-error, and other methods that linguists explicate in their work.
  • “This “living for the moment”, which the Pirahã enjoy (they think Western life sounds dreadful), shapes their language.” I wonder if the language of Buddhists is shaped the same way too. At least they are trying to live for the moment, or so my meditation guru tells me.
  • “True instincts, like turtles making their way to the sea or ducklings bonding with their mothers, require no learning.” Actually, the duckling bonding does require learning: the duckling has to learn which object in the world is the “mother”. Apparently, they can be “taught” to follow any moving object, at a certain prewired age, even a soft drink can. Also, many types of singing birds “learn” their song from other individuals, even though the capability for learning the song is clearly instinctual.
  • “Animals do not truly excel in their deployment of basic instincts, whereas some humans clearly use language much better than others.” Not if by language we understand the ability to learn/acquire or use one’s native language. Barring pathology, everybody learns their native language at about the same pace. And everybody becomes an expert, if often subconsciously, in the subtleties of one’s language and its grammar.


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  • Nigel Duffield

    Hi Asya

    While there is much to commend in your commentary, which goes beyond the usual propaganda, it is not fair to criticise the author of the CHE article as “hostile, brutal, spiteful, ridiculous, and
    childish.”, not least because he does not characterise linguists in these terms, as should be clear from the scare quotes, but is simply reporting how many linguists respond to the behavior of others in the field. (As someone who’s spent time in the middle of things, I’d have to say that most of these adjectives can be accurately applied to almost all of us, at least some of the time, certainly the first three). Maybe every scientific field is as riddled with hostility and vituperation as syntax, when experienced up close, maybe not—but the rhetoric on both sides is rarely tempered by common decency—and name-calling *is* childish…

    More to the point, if you read the whole thing without knee-jerking or paranoia, without seizing on each attempt at balance as some ruse to undermine UG, it might come across to you—as it did to me and Rob Truswell—as a relatively well-researched and fair-minded piece.

    This doesn’t mean that I agree with—or am even greatly sympathetic to—the likes of Everett, much less to the approach of Evans and Levinson, to which I  published a critical commentary a couple of years back. But neither do I think that they are all wrong either.  If they make us re-examine our assumptions, and force us to set out our stalls a bit more carefully each time, this does no harm.

    Theories are not articles of faith, they are flickering torches in the night, casting unreliable shadows: to believe they illuminate everything goes beyond arrogance.

    • Nigel, great to hear from you. Still, I have to disagree with you, as I didn’t find the CHE article well-balanced, as you claim. Perhaps in the sea of bad, amateurish linguistics that overflows the popular press, it’s one of the better researched ones, but it is still very hostile and arrogant. In fact, to my surprise, I found The Economist piece much more balanced and neutral, though perhaps equally misinformed. And I have taken The Economist to task in this blog before (if you are curious, just search for “The Economist”).

      Now, I am not saying that Chomskian theory is “Torah from Mt. Sinai”, as we would say in Hebrew, but the way it is presented in the popular press (most of it, anyway) is extremely biased, misinformed, and hostile. I see this all the time as I teach linguistics mostly non-linguists and non-students but to that very “general public”. They read stuff like Everett’s books and these sorts of articles in the popular press and think that Everett is a saint and martyr, while Chomskian linguists are evil. But more importantly, they really don’t understand what Universal Grammar, or Principle & Parameters, or any of that stuff is all about. That’s really why I started with this blog a couple of years ago. Trying to explain ergativity or head-directionality parameter or vowel harmony to people with zero background in linguistics isn’t easy, believe me. But somebody’s got to do it, right?

      Anyway, if you get a chance to read my recent textbook (see link on the right), I’d love to know what you think.

  • It’s not the obscurity of Piraha that makes it important, but its unusual nature.  As I said here before, if the click languages had died out before they were studied, we would surely be convinced that “clicks can’t be phonemes” is a universal.  Until the first published squib on Hixkaryana, we were convinced that OVS did not exist as a basic order.

    When we want to know what language can and cannot contain, we have to explore the extreme languages, not the ordinary ones.

    • I agree that it’s the unsual nature of this language that makes it interesting, although I wonder if that unusual nature has been blown out of proportion. That’s the crux of the debate, I think, besides the mud-slinging and name-calling…

      Let me also point out that things may not be as straightforward with Hixkayana’s OVS, but I will come back to this issue in a bit more detail in a later post. More on Piraha and Hixkaryana next week, I hope!

  • AlexTheStatisitician

    Let me just comment on a side issue, as I lack the knowledge to comment on the main point of universal grammars. 
    The NYT article linked brings up the disturbing point of possible academic thuggery in denying funding to Dr. Everett because he disagrees with others.  Is the situation in linguistics the same as in climatology?  There, some of the leaked emails show the protagonists appearing to conspire to  reject articles that do not agree with global warming.  I have no hard opinions on global warming, but I will ignore any evidence of it until I am satisfied that such unprofessional activity is no longer occurring.  (Asking that the damage done to reputations and academic advancement be corrected  is probably asking too much). What made Trofim Lysenko despicable was not his rejection of genetic inheritance but that he had those who favotrd the theory sent to Siberia.  Granted, Jones and Mann did not have that power, and what Dr Oliveira alludes to in the NYT piece is even milder, but I see those three as lying on a spectrum.

    • I would suggest that if you reject the consensus conclusions of any field because of the skulduggery of  highly-placed persons in it, most of science will go out with the bathwater.  Deciding the difference between revolution and pseudo-science is often hard, as facts are often difficult to confirm, and people do conspire with others to reject it, usually in the form “Is this as crap as I think it is?”  “Yeah, looks like nonsense to me too.”

      • Just One Comment

        You’re dodging here, though your points _are_ worth making. The thing here is that descriptive linguistics is basically an autonomous science (you can bicker about the definition indefinitely, but…) but the science of global warming is a derived science. Then, the consensus of linguistics/linguists counts nearly always whether the one proposing to disagree is a statistician, mathematician, anthropologist, historian, or geneticist, or… But the propositions of the science of global warming base themselves on, first and foremost, statistics, chemistry, and what have you. When a statistician makes a remark of an elementary error in some global warming bit, he is not to be discarded straight away. And, to be honest, only a fool has not seen these (statistics) blunders in the science of global warming…

        • The question is not whether a statistician, anthropologist, or whatever decides to meddle in linguistics or the science of global warming (that would be climatology, I think). The problem is that they need to know the field that they decide to contribute to before they can do so. Typically, those scholars who want to contribute to climatology or genetics or the like, actually do know something about it, but they feel they can meddle into linguistics without knowing the first thing about language. That’s why we linguists don’t like them doing so.

          And no, descriptive linguistics is not really an autonomous science. But like any other science, it has its own set of empirical problems, its own apparatus etc. Anyone who wants to contribute needs some basic familiarity with those.

    • Alex, I am not part of this situation, but I’ve seen people more familiar with the internal goings-on comment on the Chronicle of Higher Education Disqus forum ( that there were some legitimate reasons for the Brazilian authorities to not allow Dr. Everett additional research opportunities with the Piraha, which had nothing to do with any academic-politics or thuggery by other linguists. I tend to believe this is true.

      • Lacenio

        That’s right.  It looks like Everett is covering up the fact that he had been doing his work illegally, without the required permission of the Indian Foundation.  Brazilian newspapers covered the story, but no one on the Chronicle did that elementary fact-check.  So no skullduggery by any Chomskyan linguist.

        • Thanks, Lacenio. Do you have any references to the Brazilian newspaper coverage of this handy? Thanks!

  • anthrostudent

    Hi I am a student studying anthropology and I was recently asked by my professor to research the Piraha language and to analyze which universal language principles the language is said to oppose. To my understanding, the language lacks specific clause structure, primarily the recursive clause; however, I am seeking to gain a little more insight on the topic as to how the lack of recursive clauses breaks the universal language principles (examples possibly?), and if there are any other principles which are questioned by the language?