The Pirahã Controversy — Part 2

Mar 23, 2012 by

Let us now move away from the academic politics of the Everett-Chomsky debate and consider the actual controversy surrounding the Pirahã language. The language is spoken by an estimated 360 speakers in the Brazilian state Amazonas, along Maici and Autaces rivers. Their remote location means that most scholars have only indirect access to the Pirahã and are limited to reanalyzing the data collected by the few experts who lived with the Pirahã for some time and could study their language and culture directly. The most prominent linguist to study the Pirahã directly is Dan Everett, whose work sparked the Pirahã controversy. Still, several other researchers, including Uli Sauerland, are now doing independent research on Pirahã.

What placed the Pirahã on the radar of experts and non-experts alike is Dan Everett’s claim that the Pirahã language is unique among human languages. More specifically, Everett has made four claims about the unique features of Pirahã. First, he maintains that the Pirahã language does not allow embedding (or recursion more generally) and lacks some other (possibly, recursion-related) grammatical structures, such as numbers and quantification, ‘relative tenses’ and color terms. Second, Everett insists that the Pirahã have several peculiar cultural gaps as well, such as the lack of creation myths and fiction, the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past, the simplest kinship system yet documented, and monolingualism maintained after more than 200 years of regular contact with Portuguese-speaking Brazilians. Third, Everett proposed that “Pirahã culture severely constrains Pirahã grammar” (Everett 2005: 622). In other words, he seeks to furnish a common explanation for both the grammatical and the cultural peculiarities of Pirahã. Finally, Everett (2005: 622) views the cultural explanation for the linguistic gaps as a challenge to foundational ideas in linguistics:

“These constraints lead to the startling conclusion that Hockett’s (1960) design features of human language, even more widely accepted among linguists that Chomsky’s proposed universal grammar, must be revised. With respect to Chomsky’s proposal, the conclusion is severe – some of the components of so-called core grammar are subject to cultural constraints, something that is predicted not to occur by the universal-grammar model.”

All four of these claims have been challenged by other researchers, most notably by Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues (2009; henceforth, NP&R). Based on Everett’s own data, NP&R argue that the “inexplicable gaps” of the Pirahã language are illusory, nonexistent, or not supported by adequate evidence. In addition, based on the work of the Brazilian anthropologist Marco Antônio Gonçalves (1993, 2001), NP&R argue that Everett’s characterization of Pirahã culture as exceptional is not correct either. For instance, according to Gonçalves, Pirahã have creation myths and are not purely monolingual. Moreover, even assuming that Everett is correct in his characterization of the Pirahã language and culture as containing those unique gaps, NP&R show that the linguistic and the cultural gaps are not linked: the peculiar constructions and grammatical gaps found in Pirahã are also found in languages as varied as German, Chinese, Hebrew, and Adyghe, whose speakers do not share the unusual properties ascribed by Everett to the Pirahã culture. Finally, NP&R assert that “even if such a connection [between language and culture] should exist, it poses no conceivable challenge to the proposition that some features of [Universal Grammar] are unique to language”, thus requiring no revision of Hockett’s or even Chomsky’s model of language. Thus, NP&R’s (2009: 360) conclude that Pirahã

“emerges from the literature as … a fascinating language – but at the same time, it is just a language among other languages of the world, a claim that casts no aspersions on Pirahã.”

In the following post, I will review NP&R’s arguments against the view that Pirahã does not allow embedding.

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