Are Languages of “Primitive Peoples” Primitive?

Jul 28, 2015 by

A recent discussion of Toki Pona, a conlang dubbed “the world’s smallest language” by Roc Morin on Business Insider Australia website, prompted me to write again on the issue of the so-called “primitive languages” (for my earlier takes on this issue, see here and here). According to Morin’s article, the point behind creating Toki Pona was to reexamine “what it would have been like to be a person in nature, interacting with things in a primitive way”—including language. The answer of Sonja Lang, Toki Pona’s creator, is simplicity, associated in Toki Pona philosophy with goodness. So Toki Pona is conceived of as an excessively “simple” language, with a small sound inventory (9 consonants and 5 vowels), merely 123 roots, and a grammar/syntax supposedly consisting of only 10 rules. But does this view that languages of technologically-primitive, tribal peoples are simple reflect reality?

The answer is no, far from it. Languages dubbed as “primitive” can have rich sound inventories, as do !Xóõ and !Kung, whose click sounds are numerous and varied (and appear in language names themselves). Vocabularies of such languages are typically extensive, especially when it comes to semantic fields important to those peoples, such as local flora and fauna. Even more entrenched seems to be the belief that “primitive peoples had not gone through this language-building stage, and thus [speak] languages with imperfect grammar or downright less grammar” (as described by the author of the Studies in Pseudoscience blog). Yet, languages of the primitive peoples are not “grammar-less”. John McWhorter illustrates this point with the example of Ket, a polysynthetic language whose grammar is “very, very complicated—so much so that it strains belief that anyone actually speaks it” (McWhorter, What Language Is, p. 57).

Djirbal mapThe same point can be illustrated with my favorite “tribal language”: Dyirbal, an Aboriginal Australian language with split-ergative case marking and ergative syntax, antipassives, and other grammatical twists-and-turns that boggle the mind, some of which are explained below. (For a detailed description of this language, see R.M.W. Dixon’s 1972 book, The Dyirbal language of North Queensland, published by Cambridge University Press.)

For starters, consider the case system of a more familiar language, English. Although in the past they did, in contemporary English nouns do not change form depending on their position in the sentence (which is called “case marking”). Pronouns, however, still do: compare he for subject, him for object as in He saw him. In Dyirbal, nouns and pronouns alike wear their structural position on their sleeve by changing for subject- and object-ready forms. Consider a transitive sentence like ŋuma yabu-ŋgu buran ‘Mother saw father’ (the word order in Dyirbal is Object-Subject-Verb, so the sentence is literally ‘father mother saw’). Despite its position, unexpected for an English speaker, the word ŋuma is the object and it carries no special suffixes. In contrast, the subject yabu-ŋgu ‘mother’ is marked with the suffix -ŋgu, which indicates its subject-hood. Thinking of the way pronouns work in English (e.g. He returned rather than *Him returned), we might expect the Dyirbal sentence corresponding to ‘Mother returned’ to have the same “subject” form of ‘mother’, yabu-ŋgu. But that’s not the case: in Dyirbal intransitive sentences—with a subject but no object—nouns appear in the same form as they have when functioning as the object of a transitive sentence: yabu banaganyu ‘Mother returned’. This is called “ergative case marking”.

But this is only the beginning when it comes to the head-spinning Dyirbal grammar. Pronouns in this language work more akin to those of English: subjects are marked as such, regardless of whether an object is also present, as in We saw you and We returned and their Dyirbal analogs, ŋana nyurra-na buran and ŋana banaganyu. (Note also that in sentences with pronouns the word order is different from those with nouns, Subject-Object-Verb rather than Object-Subject-Verb.) Treating nouns and pronouns differently is one example of what is called “split ergativity”.

Stringing such simple sentences into coordinated structures comes with its own complications in Dyirbal. In English, the omitted subject in the second conjunct is understood as meaning the same as the subject of the first conjunct, so Mother saw father and ___ returned can mean only that mother returned, not father. In Dyirbal the situation is the opposite (note that there is no expressed word for ‘and’): ŋuma yabu-ŋgu buran banaganyu, literally ‘father mother-SUBJ saw returned’, means ‘Mother saw father and father (!) returned’. (The technical term for this and related phenomena is “syntactic ergativity”.)

Recall, however, that pronouns in Dyirbal work more English-like in terms of their case marking. Yet, when it comes to coordination, Dyirbal treats pronouns same as nouns, and subjects of intransitives are coordinated only with objects of transitives. The Dyirbal literal translation of ‘we returned and you saw’ means not ‘we returned and saw you’ but ‘we returned and you saw us’! (The actual Dyirbal sentence, in case you want to impress your friends, is ŋana banaganyu nyurra buran.) Thus, as Dixon puts it, “Dyirbal has a split-ergative morphology but an entirely ergative syntax” (Ergativity, Cambridge University Press, p. 15).

Don’t worry if you’ve missed some of the more technical details in the above description: my overall point is Dyirbal is not a “grammar-less” language where words are just strung together any whichever way. Moreover, the observations above only scratch the surface of Dyirbal’s grammatical complexity, which took Dixon decades to work out. Thus, Dyirbal is another language whose complexity “strains belief that anyone actually speaks it”, but about 300 people in northeastern Australia actually do. Numerous other Australian Aboriginal, Papuan, Amazonian, sub-Saharan African, and Siberian languages provide examples of the sort of grammatical complexity that is not found in familiar European languages. A long-time reader of this blog will be familiar with examples such as Warlpiri, an Australian language known for its freedom of word order yet mind-boggling ergative system; Pirahã, an Amazonian language whose supposed lack of grammatical complexity raised a storm of a controversy; Bantu languages with their noun class systems; and Yukaghir, with fascinating evidential markers. The unavoidable conclusion is that, in the words of Studies in Pseudoscience blogger, “complexity in languages is not a result of a cabal of clever people developing the language as civilization emerges, and we know language change is not the result of their meticulous work being abandoned due to laziness in subsequent generations”.

One last note about the view characterizing “primitive peoples” as “living simple lives in harmony with nature”, implicit in Morin’s article about Toki Pona. As noted in Martin Lewis’ Green Delusions (Duke University Press, 1992, p. 8), this view is often held by environmentalists that advocate a return to “the paths of the primal peoples who live in intrinsic harmony with nature”, with most eco-radicals going as far as linking that “grace as a species in nature” with a healthy social organization, “unsullied by social hierarchies and uncorrupted by personal greed for material objects” (p. 45), even superior consciousness and spirituality. But these views, Lewis argues, are mistaken: “Tribal groups usually do live lightly on the earth, but often only because their population densities are low. … unless our numbers could be reduced to a small fraction of present levels, any return to nature would be an environmental catastrophe” (p. 8). Thus, if Toki Pona’s creation was indeed inspired by the ideals of “simple” languages of “primitive peoples in harmony with nature”, as Morin suggests, it is based on not one, but two misunderstandings: “primitive peoples” do not necessarily live in harmony with nature, nor are their languages simple in any reasonable sense.



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