Everett vs. Chomsky
In Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, the elephant in the roomor rather, the elephant in the Amazonian jungleis the noted American linguist, Noam Chomsky. To put it far too simply, Chomsky and Everett are feuding over which has supremacy in linguistics: genetics or culture, nature or nurture.
Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, which has dominated linguistics for the last forty decades, hypothesizes that the human brain comes pre-equipped with a set of rules for constraining language. The theory arose from a question: how can a child who is acquiring language learn what is ungrammatical, if the only speech she hears is grammatical and correct? Adults do not teach language to children by speaking improper sentences and then marking them as such, so how do children know what formulations violate their languages' grammar? The theory of universal grammar answers that this knowledge has been evolutionarily mapped onto our brains. It is as if the rules governing the movement of chess pieces were implanted in the human brain, so that children grow up only seeing allowable moves when they look at the board. Because this "language instinct" is genetic, Chomsky further hypothesizes that all of the world's languages share an underlying structure, despite their dizzying variations in the way meaning is expressed.
In a 2002 article in the journal Science, Chomsky, Marc D. Hauser, and W. Tecumseh Fitch took this theory one step further by pinpointing a specific feature of this universal grammar which distinguishes human communication from that of other animals. After reviewing the studies done on dolphins, songbirds, apes, and monkeys, they state, "It seems relatively clear, after nearly a century of intensive research on animal communication, that no species other than humans has a comparable capacity to recombine meaningful units into an unlimited variety of larger structures, each differing systemically in meaning." Human language owes its capacity for infinite expression to the property of recursion, in which meaning can be embedded with meaning. Chomsky explains, "There is no longest sentence (any candidate sentence can be trumped by, for example, embedding it in Mary thinks that '), and there is no non-arbitrary upper bound to sentence length. In these respects, language is directly analogous to the natural numbers." Chomsky calls this "discrete infinity" or "infinite generativity," but a layperson would call it creativity.
Everett has sent a flare across the sky of Chomsky's kingdom with his announcement that the Pirahãs entirely lack recursion in their language. He discovered that a sentence with a relative clause (such as: The man who was tall came into the house) is unavailable in their grammar and can only be expressed in two simple sentences (The man came into the house. He was tall). But one day, as he watched a Pirahã man making an arrow for his fishing spear, he heard something which electrified him. The man said, "Hey Paitá, bring back some nails. Dan bought those very nails. They are the same." These three sentences could be translated into English as, "Bring back the nails that Dan bought." Everett realized that the third sentence acted as a kind of equal sign to indicate to the listener that the nails in the first sentence were the same as the nails in the second sentence.
The implications of this tiny third sentence are incredibly far-reaching. It indicates that the Pirahãs can say everything an English speaker can say, but without recursion. Therefore recursion is not the fundamental characteristic of human speech. And therefore, Everett writes, "There does not have to be a specific genetic capacity for grammar; the biological basis of grammar could also be the basis of gourmet cooking, of mathematical reasoning, and of medical advances. In other words, it could just be human reasoning."
For an encapsulated version of Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, try John Colapinto's feature story on Daniel Everett in the New Yorker. To hear samples of Pirahã speech and browse a few pictures of the people, visit the author's website.
This article was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the
November 2009 paperback release.
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