Chomsky and Daniel Everett AMAZON
When Daniel Everett first went to live with the Amazonian Pirahã tribe in the late 70s, his intention was to convert them to Christianity. Instead, he learned to speak their unique language - and ended up rejecting his faith, losing his family and picking a fight with Noam Chomsky. Patrick Barkham meets him
Patrick Barkham - The Guardian, Monday 10 November 2008
'It's wrong to try and convert tribal societies' ... Everett with a member of the Piraha. Photograph: Martin Schoeller
Daniel Everett looks and talks very much like the middle-aged American academic he is - until he drops a strange word into the conversation. An exceptionally melodic noise tumbles from his mouth. It doesn't sound like speaking at all. Apart from his ex-wife and two ageing missionaries, Everett is the only person in the world beyond the sweeping banks of the Maici river in the Amazon basin who can speak Pirahã.
Just 350 Pirahã (pronounced Pee-da-HAN) hunt and gather from their simple homes in the Brazilian rainforest. Linguists believe their language is unrelated to any other; racist Brazilian traders say the Pirahã talk like chickens. This obscure Amazonian people speak using only three vowels and eight consonants (including the glottal stop) but their language is far from simple. Like Chinese, for example, Pirahã is tonal and speaking in a different pitch transforms the meaning of a word. Unlike other tonal languages, Pirahã can also be hummed and sung.
Listen to the Pirahã singing here Link to this audio
The Pirahã have no socially lubricating "hello" and "thank you" and "sorry". They have no words for colours, no words for numbers and no way of expressing any history beyond that experienced in their lifetimes. And, in the late 70s, Everett was dispatched to the Amazon to learn their language, translate the Bible and convert them to Christianity.
The idea that we can be enlightened or destroyed by living with exotic people has transfixed western societies since before Joseph Conrad's rogue trader Kurtz was corrupted in the Congo. Yet Everett's life could be a more dramatic example of enlightenment and destruction than any fictional encounter with a drastically different culture. Thirty years living with the Pirahã destroyed his evangelical faith in God, wrecked his marriage and estranged him from two of his three children. It also dismantled his intellectual framework and set him on a collision course with one of the most influential intellectuals in the world. Today, he is continuing his fight with Noam Chomsky in a debate that could transform our understanding of human language.
Everett is taking a working break from his professorial duties at Illinois State University when we meet in London. He grew up in a "redneck" home on the Mexican border. His father was a cowboy but Everett developed an interest in language after mixing with Spanish speakers at school. He was "pretty heavily into drugs" in 60s California, he says, until he met Keren Graham at high school. She had spent her childhood with her missionary parents in the Amazon; Everett was converted. "I credit religion with getting me out of drug culture," he says.
He and Graham were married at 18 and had three children. After joining a missionary organisation and studying linguistics, Everett and his young family were dispatched to the Pirahã, where two other missionaries had spent two decades struggling to pick up the language and failing to convert any Pirahã. Everett's first visit ended when his wife and daughter nearly died from malaria, but he persevered, spending all of 1980 with the Pirahã and returning to live with them for four months or so every year for the next two decades. Despite close encounters with snakes and Brazilian traders who incited the Pirahã to kill Everett, the missionary/linguist befriended the Pirahã and painstakingly picked up their extraordinary language.
Everett's discovery of the elegant linguistic theories of Chomsky was his second conversion experience. At the time, Chomsky was not merely known for his trenchant, left-leaning political activism but was revered as the father of modern linguistics for his theory of "universal grammar". Following Chomsky's idea that humans are innately programmed to produce language according to a fixed and finite set of rules, Everett studied for a doctorate in the 80s and took advice from Chomsky. Gradually, however, as he spent more time with the Pirahã, he came to doubt Chomsky's claims of universality.
These doubts exploded three years ago, like "a bomb thrown into the party" in the words of psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, who initially welcomed Everett's findings against Chomsky before becoming more critical. In 2005, Everett published a paper about the Pirahã that rocked the foundations of universal grammar. Chomsky had recently refined his theory to argue that recursion - the linguistic practice of inserting phrases inside others - was the cornerstone of all languages. (An example of recursion is extending the sentence "Daniel Everett talked about the story of his life" to read, "Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life".) Everett argued that he could find no evidence of recursion in Pirahã. This was deeply troubling for Chomsky's theory. If the Pirahã didn't use recursion, then how could it be a fundamental part of a universal grammar embedded in our genes? And if the Pirahã didn't use recursion, then is their language - and, by implication, other languages - determined not by biology but by culture?
Thirty years of living with the Pirahã has taught Everett that they exist almost completely in the present. Absorbed by the daily struggle to survive, they do not plan ahead, store food, build houses or canoes to last, maintain tools or talk of things beyond those that they, or people they know, have experienced. They are the "ultimate empiricists", he argues, and this culture of living in the present has shaped their language.
Everett's claims created a furore. Chomskyites rushed to defend universal grammar and academics cast doubt on Everett's view of the Pirahã. Nineteenth-century anthropologists had judged exotic peoples similarly, saying they had no creation myths and apparently crude languages that could not count or convey abstract thought, before it was proved it was our erroneous understanding of these "primitive" societies that was primitive. "By framing his observations as an anti-Chomsky discovery rather than as un-PC Eurocentric condescension, Everett was able to get away with claims that would have aroused the fury of anthropologists in any other context," wrote the increasingly sceptical Pinker, who argued that even if there was "a grain of truth" in the Pirahã's preoccupation with the here-and-now, it was by no means unique to their society. In other words, Everett was an almost racist throwback to the days of, well, missionaries.
Yet Everett's life with the Pirahã didn't just cause a gradual disenchantment with the Chomskyan intellectual framework he had once cherished: it also triggered another, even more dramatic, de-conversion.
Soon after he first arrived in the Amazon, Everett was nearly killed when the Pirahã discovered he was ordering passing river traders not to give them whisky. The Pirahã were rarely violent, but intensely rejected any kind of coercion. Crucially, Everett came to see his religion as fundamentally coercive. His academic studies were ultimately designed to help him translate the Bible into Pirahã. When they heard the word of God, his evangelic mission believed, they would be converted. Everett translated the Book of Luke, read it to the Pirahã and they were utterly unmoved. By 1985, he had privately lost his faith.
Daniel Everett reading from the bible in Pirahã Link to this audio
"It's wrong to try and convert tribal societies," he says. "What should the empirical evidence for religion be? It should produce peaceful, strong, secure people who are right with God and right with the world. I don't see that evidence very often. So then I find myself with the Pirahã. They have all these qualities that I am trying to tell them they could have. They are the ones who are living life the way I'm saying it ought to be lived, they just don't fear heaven and hell."
His wife, Keren, and three children were all "committed" Christians. Extraordinarily, Everett couldn't tell them of his loss of faith until the late 90s. "I kept hoping that I might get my faith back," he says. He likens telling his wife to coming out as gay. "I said, 'I just can't do this any more, I can't pretend, I don't believe this stuff.' So she immediately called the kids to tell them. It was just such utter shock and revulsion." Did they feel betrayed? "Yes, they felt betrayed. My youngest daughter said, 'Were you a hypocrite the whole time you were raising us? Did you teach us to believe one way, which you never believed?' I did believe. I had a genuine, sincere conversion experience. I was quite a successful evangelist. I've had people write to me and say, 'Gee, I'm a Christian because of you and I hear you're not a Christian, that's shocking to me.' I don't take these things lightly but that's who I am. I can't change it."
Murder is rare among the Pirahã. The only punishment they regularly practice is ostracising members of their society. It seems a bitter irony that Everett's loss of faith caused his ostracism not from the Pirahã, but from his own family. His marriage broke up. "After a couple of months I tried to get us back together and she said, 'Only when you come back to religion will I even consider it', and I said, 'Well, then it's over.'" Two of his grown-up children, Shannon, a missionary like her mother, and Caleb, an anthropologist like his father, cut off all contact. Three weeks ago, after the death of a close friend, they got back in touch for the first time in years. "Now they are coming around." An almost imperceptible tremor registers in Everett's voice. "Maybe I'm coming around. We're approaching one another and realising the most important thing is love."
Everett, who has remarried, has not visited the Pirahã since January 2007. It has been his longest period apart from them. Occasionally, his ex-wife, who is still pursuing her missionary work on the banks of the Maici, will put them on the satellite phone. "I know they are not understanding why I haven't been there," he says. But it is difficult to return with his ex-wife there. "There will always be tension," he says. "She believes that if the Pirahãs reject the gospel it's because it hasn't been communicated clearly. I believe it has been communicated clearly and they reject it because it's utterly irrelevant." It's almost tragic: Keren's beliefs impugn Everett's competence; Everett's findings attack her entire belief system.
For academics rushing to the defence of the Chomskyan model there is another problem: Everett is the only linguist in the world who is fluent in Pirahã and virtually the only academic to have gathered data on the language. It must be hard not to feel possessive over the Pirahã, but Everett claims he wants academics to go there and test his theories. He just doesn't want to be dragged along to do translation work for them.
Despite challenging the linguistic theories he once followed, Everett insists he still has "tremendous respect" for Chomsky. "I'm not denigrating his intelligence or his honesty but I do think he is wrong about this and he is unprepared to accept that he is wrong."
Everett hopes his story of his life with the Pirahã will demolish charges that his account of their society is crude and politically incorrect. "If you can find evidence that I am making 19th-century claims, I will be shocked and disappointed in myself," he says. "If anything, they are superior in many ways to us. Thinking too much about the future or worrying too much about the past is really unhealthy. The Pirahã taught me that very lesson. Living in the moment is a sophisticated way to live. I don't see depression. I don't see some of the things that afflict our society - and that's not because they don't face pressures. People who claim that I'm Eurocentric and putting these people down need to read the book and decide for themselves."
The Pirahã population has climbed back to 350 after a measles epidemic is believed to have reduced it to around 100 in the 50s. They have had contact with traders and missionaries for 200 years and have proved remarkably resistant to change. They live on a 300,000 hectare reservation, which is reasonably secure, says Everett. So far, at least, no precious minerals have been found in the area as has happened elsewhere in the Amazon, bringing miners, deforestation, pollution and disease.
Everett, however, is pessimistic about their future. Missionaries and government officials see Pirahã society as poor and seek to help by giving them money and modern technology. "The Pirahã aren't poor. They don't see themselves as poor," he says. He believes capitalism and religion are manufacturing desires. "One of the saddest things I've seen in Amazonian cultures is people who were self-sufficient and happy that now think of themselves as poor and become dissatisfied with their lives. What worries me is outsiders trying to impose their values and materialism on the Pirahã."
I wonder whether Everett feels grateful for his life with the Pirahã or scarred by it. "It has been a traumatic experience," he says. "There is a lot of good and there has been a lot of pain. There are times when I think of the Pirahã with great nostalgia and want to be with them and there are other times I think I am really tired."
He hopes to return next summer to help a BBC/HBO documentary and continue his research, but only on the condition that the visitors do not disrupt the Pirahã. What does he miss the most? "I miss the evenings. After I've gone down to the river to have a bath, I would make coffee for everyone in the village. We'd sit around on logs out in the open and wait until the night fell, and talk. They are just an incredibly peaceful, sweet people to be with. The time spent talking to them, these will always be the best memories I have".
BOOK: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett
Thursday, November 13, 2008
An Interview with Daniel Everett - author of DON'T SLEEP THERE ARE SNAKES
A week or so ago I had the great privilege of reading DON'T SLEEP THERE ARE SNAKES by Daniel Everett.
Daniel Everett, a young missionary, goes to live with a small remote tribe of Piraha Indians in the Amazonian jungle. He is there to learn their language in order to translate the New Testament. But he doesn't go alone, and this, really, is one of the more remarkable features of the story: he goes with his three young children and wife. Within weeks the wife and eldest child are seriously ill - and his story of how he manages to find somewhere for them to be treated is extraordinary. They almost die - and yet as soon as they are recovered they all return to complete their mission.
There are lots of fascinating insights into the unique Piraha Society. They live exclusively in the present and their language reflects this. Daniel Everett finds that they have no words for number, and their words for colour are not abstract terms like ours, but similes. They view death with a nonchalance that can be chilling: when a young mother goes into labour, and her baby is breech, she is left to die alone; and when intoxicated with liquor by a conniving Brazilian trader they seem to consider carrying out his suggestion to kill the family without much of a qualm. But there is a positive side to their life too, and it turns out to be a very important one: the Piraha are generally happy. One anthropologist says they are the happiest people he has ever seen - because they live for today they have no word for worry.
Eventually, Daniel Everett completes his task, and returns to the Pirahas with his version of the New Testament in Piraha recorded onto tape.
However, the only person this seems to convert is Daniel.
Usually I ask just two sets of seven questions - but Daniel Everett's book fascinated me so much that I'm afraid I gave into my curiosity and asked many more - and he very kindly and generously answered them all.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
DE: One of my initial friends among the Pirahas was a man called .Tiosepoi.. I didn.t know what that meant until one day a Piraha boy came into the village with an enormous snail just taken from the river. .What is that?. I asked. .Tiosepoi. he responded. So my friend.s name was snail. (They eat them.)
CD: What is your proudest moment?
DE: Three of them: when each of my children were born.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
DE: In 1968 I gave up doing drugs to become a Christian and train to be a missionary (I was 17). That has led me down the path of turns and switchbacks that has transformed my life in unexpected ways, by bringing me to the Pirahas.
CD: What is the saddest thing you.ve ever heard of or seen?
DE: Personally it was the death of my mother when I was 11. Less self-centeredly it is anytime I hear of the death of children in wars.
CD: If there was one thing you.d change about yourself what would it be?
DE: To learn faster.
CD: What is happiness?
DE: Waking up pleased to be alive.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
DE: Read email.
(Many) questions about DON'T SLEEP THERE ARE SNAKES.
CD: Do the Piraha know how many children they have? When they share out their food, if they have discrete numbers, are they able to do that?
DE: They do not know how many children they have, but they know them all by name and know if they are present or not. They share food by giving out generous portions until they run out. Some people don.t get any that way, but they go to those who did get some and ask for some of theirs.
CD: What is their sense of time? You describe something that happened a moon or so ago so they are aware of months - how about years...or days or hours?
DE: They have a word .water. which can refer to water or to a rainy season cycle . so I will come back next water means I will come back when the river has fallen and risen once, though no numbers are involved. A month is a moon. A day is a .fire. (one night and day about the camp fire is understood). No words for hours.
CD: I was intrigued by Otavio - the Piraha who married into the Apurinas. Did he learn their language? How did he fit in with this (presumably) numerate and literate tribe?
DE: He never learned more than a few words of their language. His wife learned to understand a lot of Piraha (though she spoke very, very little of it). He fit in because literacy, even for the one of the family that could read and do some numbers, these things had little to do with their day-to-day lives.
CD: Why have the Piraha kept their culture whereas other Indians have integrated?
DE: That is the first thing that made me realize that they are .special. in some way. I believe it is because of (i) their own ethnocentricism and feelings of superiority and (ii) their value of immediacy of experience is violated by other languages, such as Portuguese.
CD: Do you, or have you ever, felt tempted to just go and live amongst the Piraha permanently?
DE: I have thought about that in the past. But then I realized that I would be a burden to them in the long run . I am a terrible fisherman and hunter. And I require more audio-visual stimulation . lights, drinks, books. So I am not as independent and self-sufficient as they are.
CD: What do you like the most about the Piraha?
DE: Their tranquillity and acceptance of life, their ability to bear pain and happiness equally.
CD: What do you like the least?
DE: Farting. This is not a social taboo for them and there are times after some meals that they pass more gas than the Alaska pipeline.
CD: Whenever I've written about your book on my blog, I have immediately had people write to me referring to polemic papers. There seems to have been some controversy. Were you prepared for this?
DE: Yes, I expected it. I knew that when I made my claims there would be others who wanted to deny them and who felt that I couldn.t possibly be right (about the scientific claims). But more and more studies are supporting what I have claimed and I will have a paper in the number one journal of linguistics, Language, in which I attempt to rebut all of these criticisms.
(American Edition of DON'T SLEEP THERE ARE SNAKES).
CD: I have a nephew who is so badly autistic that he cannot speak, and until I read your book I'd explained his condition to myself as lacking what I've thought of as Chomsky's 'language centre'. Have you any views on how autism might fit in your new framework?
DE: I think that there are connections. But I think that the problem of autism may have more to do with a problem with the social aspects of language than the grammatical aspects.
CD: Is it possible for a non-Piraha to become fully-integrated in the Piraha's way of life?
DE: Certainly not for me. And I have never seen anyone who has. It requires tremendous knowledge of the jungle and its flora and fauna, as well as toughness that one rarely finds among outsiders.
CD: Is it possible for a Piraha to become fully westernised?
DE: Yes. I know a woman kidnapped as a young child and raised among Brazilians who is now indistinguishable from those she lives with.
CD: When I read the part that described how the Pirahas view the world as consisting of layers it brought to mind the shamanic view of the world - which seems to me to have some spiritual aspects. Do they have an idea of an underworld? Have they any ideas of where their spirits live when they can't see them?
DE: When they cannot see the spirits they say that they can be anywhere . under the river, in the trees, in the sky. They let us see them when they choose.
CD: What do they say about the stars and the moon?
DE: They know a good deal about these. Once a Piraha man pointed to a moving object high in the night sky, a satellite (!), and asked what that was. I said it was a thing like a radio.
CD: Have the Pirahas changed in the time you have known them?
DE: Nothing significant, except that they are being contacted much more now by some Catholic missionaries who think that they need more material goods.
CD: Do you think global warming or environmental damage will impact on them?
DE: No. Highly unlikely.
CD: What do they make of the Trans-Amazonian highway?
DE: It is an invasion of their land, but the settlers along it have nice fields that the Pirahas can get things from at night.
CD: Is there any other language that you have encountered that comes close to the strangeness of the Pirahas?
DE: I have worked on nearly 24 other Amazonian groups and they all seem very, very different from the Pirahas. The world.s leading phonetician (Peter Ladefoged) had just visited the .Bushmen. in Africa before visiting the Pirahas and thought that the Pirahas were much less like anything he.d ever heard of in his career (visiting and researching tribal groups around the world).
CD: What converted you to Christianity in the first place? Was it your wife? Or the suicide of your stepmother?
DE: It was my wife to be. And back in the 60s it was cool to be very different. Becoming religious made me very different from my hippy friends. But it was genuine and sincere and I did believe that Jesus loved me and had a plan for my life.
CD: Do you regret losing your faith in God? Does it make things easier or harder?
DE: I regret some of the social aspects of church . good times with nice people who share your world view . available anywhere in the world that you find yourself. I don.t have that now. But I do not regret anything about my views of God. They were unsustainable. I am happier now. But I never want my decision on religion to be seen as another form of evangelism. I am not out to convert people to atheism. These are hard personal choices.
posted by Clare Dudman at 8:13 PM
Interesting interview. I'm fascinated by the fact that the Pirahas stay in the present through their language and that they have no concept of numbers.
Fri Nov 14, 02:03:00 AM
Clare Dudman said...
Thanks for taking a look, Mary. Yes, the whole story is really interesting and unusual - so many things to think about as I read. Excellent writing, too!
Fri Nov 14, 08:30:00 AM
Thanks for sharing this interview and asking such great questions. Now I've got to read this book. There something so telling about the fact that these people don't have so many things (concepts, words etc) and yet they are so happy, so sufficient. A lot to learn from that I think.
Mon Nov 17, 11:12:00 AM
Missionaries should not be instilling their culture onto others. Daniel obviously had a conflict of interests, and decided for an academic career instead of an evalgelistic one. However, it is tragic that he had to sacrifice his faith in God! He lost his original mission. The conflict between loyalty to the original people and the imposition of the culture of Christianity is a difficult one. Just reading out Luke is not enough! There has to be common points to show that God is all powerful, and that Jesus is Lord and Saviour without taking away the joy and happiness and norm of their existence. The Gospel must be integrated and mostly "free" from the culture of the missionaries. We all have the same Creator!
Sun Nov 23, 11:16:00 PM
Clare Dudman said...
Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments, anonymous. Daniel gives us all a lot to think about.
Sun Nov 23, 11:22:00 PM
Good interview - must read this book. So interesting that Piraha seem able to filter out and reject concepts that don't fit their worldview so completely. Not surprising that Daniel's religious beliefs changed after spending time with them. With a language like birdsong and concerned only with the observable present it sounds like a fascinating culture.
Tue Dec 02, 04:26:00 AM
Clare Dudman said...
Thank you Anonymous. Yes, I recommend this book, very highly. It is extremely well-written and forces you to take a fresh look at the world around you.
Tue Dec 02, 08:58:00 AM
In a work that calls itself non-fiction, should quality of writing really trump truth? After all there are internal inconsistencies in the story, and contradictions with other accounts. I think there are real grounds for caution.
At least one thoughtful review of this book has finally appeared in the press: Deborah Cameron in Saturday's Guardian:
I hope we'll see some more.
Sun Dec 07, 01:38:00 AM
Clare Dudman said...
Thank you, Anonymous, for the reference to the review -an interesting viewpoint, but having read the book I do not agree. I certainly did not find Daniel Everett's prose workmanlike, and found his writing perfectly vivid. I could counter that one sentence the reviewer has chosen with several others that convey the opposite -but what is the point? I really enjoyed the book and it made me think; maybe it will not touch others in the same way, but then we are all different. I came to the book as an interested general reader, Deborah Cameron is not - she is a linguistics expert at the University of Oxford - so our perspectives are different.
And in answer to your initial question - no, I do not think quality of writing should trump truth in non-fiction...but then 'truth' is sometimes just as tricky as 'beauty' - frequently dependent on the eye of the beholder!
Sun Dec 07, 09:22:00 AM
You wrote: 'truth' is sometimes just as tricky as 'beauty' - frequently dependent on the eye of the beholder
Beauty yes. But truth too? I can't agree.
For example: Is Everett's prose is "vivid" or merely "workmanlike"? That is indeed in the eye of the beholder. You have your view, the Guardian has theirs, and you can both be right at the same time.
But on whether the Piraha do or do not communicate with outsiders, use foreign tools, or tell myths - do you really think that this kind of thing is just a matter of "perspective" too? That you could see the machete and I could deny its existence, and we could both be right in our own ways? I hope not!
Sun Dec 07, 01:31:00 PM
Clare Dudman said...
You wrote '...do or do not communicate with outsiders, use foreign tools, or tell myths - do you really think that this kind of thing is just a matter of "perspective" too? '
Yes, Anonymous I believe it is. All these things are not absolutes: what is communication - a smile or the spoken word? What is a myth? What is a foreign tool? Your definition may be different from mine, hence also what we consider to be 'truth'.
Sun Dec 07, 01:52:00 PM
Daniel Leonard Everett (born 1951 in Holtville, California) is a linguistics professor best known for his study of the Amazon Basin's Pirahã people and their language.
He currently serves as Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. He previously taught at the University of Manchester and is former Chair of the Linguistics Department of the University of Pittsburgh.
Everett was married at age 18 to Keren Graham, who was the daughter of Christian missionaries. The couple graduated with degrees in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago in 1976. They then enrolled in the Summer Institute of Linguistics (S.I.L.) (CIA?)
which trains missionaries to quickly learn foreign languages so that they can go into remote areas, learn the language, and then translate the Bible into that language.
Because Everett quickly demonstrated a gift for language, he was invited to study Pirahã, which the S.I.L. faculty had failed to learn in 20 years of study. In 1977, the couple and their three children moved to Brazil, where they studied Portuguese for a year before moving to a Pirahã village at the mouth of the Maici River in the Lowland Amazonia region.
Everett had some initial success learning the language, but when the S.I.L. lost their contract with the Brazilian government, he enrolled in the fall of 1978 at the State University of Campinas in Brazil, under the auspices of which he could continue to study Pirahã. Everett focused on the theories of Noam Chomsky and in his Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 1983, he performed a Chomskyan analysis of Pirahã.
On one of his research missions in 1993, he discovered a new language, the Oro Win language, which is one of the few languages that uses the rare voiceless dental bilabially trilled affricate (phonetically, [t...]).
Everett eventually concluded that Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar, and the universality of recursion in particular, do not apply to Pirahã. His 2005 article in Current Anthropology, titled "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã," has caused a controversy in the field of linguistics.
Influenced by the Pirahã's concept of truth, he slowly lost his Christian faith and became an atheist. He says that he was having serious doubts by 1982, and had lost all faith by 1985 after having spent a year at MIT. He would not tell anyone about his atheism for another 19 years; when he finally did, his marriage ended in divorce and two of his three children broke off all contact.
John Colapinto, "The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?", The New Yorker, April 16, 2007
^ Daniel Everett, "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã", Current Anthropology, Volume 46, Number 4, August-October 2005, pp. 621-46.
^ Robin H. Ray, "Linguists doubt exception to universal grammar", MIT News, April 23, 2007.
^ Middleton, Liz Else, Lucy (2008-01-19). "Interview: Daniel Everett". New Scientist.
The New Yorker April 16, 2007
Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?
BYLINE: John Colapinto
SECTION: FACT; A Reporter At Large; Pg. 120 Vol. 83 No. 8
One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and
I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering
tributary of the Amazon. On the bank above us were some thirty people-short, dark-skinned men, women, and
children-some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer
tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett-a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the
booming voice of a former evangelical minister-with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a
melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and
based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses
such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and
consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.
It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as
Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it. Everett eventually abandoned
Christianity, but he and Keren have spent the past thirty years, on and off, living with the tribe, and in that time they
have learned Pirahã as no other Westerners have.
"Xaói hi gáísai xigíaihiabisaoaxái ti xabiíhai hiatíihi xigío hoíhi, hoíhi," Everett said in the tongue's choppy staccato,
introducing me as someone who would be "staying for a short time" in the village. The men and women answered in an
echoing chorus, "Xaói hi goó kaisigíaihí xapagáiso xapagáiso." ."
Everett turned to me. "They want to know what you're called in 'crooked head.' "
"Crooked head" is the tribe's term for any language that is not Pirahã, and it is a clear pejorative. The Pirahã
consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among
Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual. They playfully tossed my name back and forth among themselves, altering
it slightly with each reiteration, until it became an unrecognizable syllable. They never uttered it again, but instead gave
me a lilting Pirahã name: Kaaxáoi, that of a Pirahã man, from a village downriver, whom they thought I resembled.
"That's completely consistent with my main thesis about the tribe," Everett told me later. "They reject everything from
outside their world. They just don't want it, and it's been that way since the day the Brazilians first found them in this
jungle in the seventeen-hundreds."
Everett, who this past fall became the chairman of the Department of Languages, Literature, and Cultures at Illinois
State University, has been publishing academic books and papers on the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) for more than
twenty-five years. But his work remained relatively obscure until early in 2005, when he posted on his Web site an article
titled "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã, Pirahã," which was published that fall in the journal Cultural
Anthropology Anthropology. The article described the extreme simplicity of the tribe's living conditions and culture. The Pirahã,
Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing,
and no words for "all," "each," "every," "most," or "few"-terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among
the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett's most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no
evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when
a speaker combines discrete thoughts ("the man is walking down the street," "the man is wearing a top hat") into a single
sentence ("The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street"). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic
theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages,
and is possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.
Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, calls Everett's paper "a bomb thrown into the party." For months, it
was the subject of passionate debate on social-science blogs and Listservs. Everett, once a devotee of Chomskyan
linguistics, insists not only that Pirahã is a "severe counterexample" to the theory of universal grammar but also that it is
not an isolated case. "I think one of the reasons that we haven't found other groups like this," Everett said, "is because
we've been told, basically, that it's not possible." Some scholars were taken aback by Everett's depiction of the Pirahã as
a people of seemingly unparalleled linguistic and cultural primitivism. "I have to wonder whether he's some Borgesian
fantasist, or some Margaret Mead being stitched up by the locals," one reader wrote in an e-mail to the editors of a
popular linguistics blog.
I had my own doubts about Everett's portrayal of the Pirahã shortly after I arrived in the village. We were still
unpacking when a Pirahã boy, who appeared to be about eleven years old, ran out from the trees beside the river.
Grinning, he showed off a surprisingly accurate replica of the floatplane we had just landed in. Carved from balsa wood,
the model was four feet long and had a tapering fuselage, wings, and pontoons, as well as propellers, which were affixed
with small pieces of wire so that the boy could spin the blades with his finger. I asked Everett whether the model
contradicted his claim that the Pirahã do not make art. Everett barely glanced up. "They make them every time a plane
arrives," he said. "They don't keep them around when there aren't any planes. It's a chain reaction, and someone else will
do it, but then eventually it will peter out." Sure enough, I later saw the model lying broken and dirty in the weeds beside
the river. No one made another one during the six days I spent in the village.
In the wake of the controversy that greeted his paper, Everett encouraged scholars to come to the Amazon and observe
the Pirahã for themselves. The first person to take him up on the offer was a forty-three-year-old American evolutionary
biologist named Tecumseh Fitch, who in 2002 co-authored an important paper with Chomsky and Marc Hauser, an
evolutionary psychologist and biologist at Harvard, on recursion. Fitch and his cousin Bill, a sommelier based in Paris,
were due to arrive by floatplane in the Pirahã village a couple of hours after Everett and I did. As the plane landed on the
water, the Pirahã, who had gathered at the river, began to cheer. The two men stepped from the cockpit, Fitch toting a
laptop computer into which he had programmed a week's worth of linguistic experiments that he intended to perform on
the Pirahã. They were quickly surrounded by curious tribe members. The Fitch cousins, having travelled widely together
to remote parts of the world, believed that they knew how to establish an instant rapport with indigenous peoples. They
brought their cupped hands to their mouths and blew loon calls back and forth. The Pirahã looked on stone-faced. Then
Bill began to make a loud popping sound by snapping a finger of one hand against the opposite palm. The Pirahã
remained impassive. The cousins shrugged sheepishly and abandoned their efforts.
"Usually you can hook people really easily by doing these funny little things," Fitch said later. "But the Pirahã kids
weren't buying it, and neither were their parents." Everett snorted. "It's not part of their culture," he said. "So they're not
A few weeks earlier, I had called Fitch in Scotland, where he is a professor at the University of St. Andrews. "I'm
seeing this as an exploratory fact-finding trip," he told me. "I want to see with my own eyes how much of this stuff that
Dan is saying seems to check out."
Everett is known among linguistics experts for orneriness and an impatience with academic decorum. He was born
into a working-class family in Holtville, a town on the California-Mexico border, where his hard-drinking father, Leonard,
worked variously as a bartender, a cowboy, and a mechanic. "I don't think we had a book in the house," Everett said. "To
my dad, people who taught at colleges and people who wore ties were 'sissies'-all of them. I suppose some of that is still
in me." Everett's chief exposure to intellectual life was through his mother, a waitress, who died of a brain aneurysm
when Everett was eleven. She brought home Reader's Digest condensed books and a set of medical encyclopedias, which
Everett attempted to memorize. In high school, he saw the movie "My Fair Lady" and thought about becoming a linguist,
because, he later wrote, Henry Higgins's work "attracted me intellectually, and because it looked like phoneticians could get rich."
As a teen-ager, Everett played the guitar in rock bands (his keyboardist later became an early member of Iron
Butterfly) and smoked pot and dropped acid, until the summer of 1968, when he met Keren Graham, another student at El
Capitan High School, in Lakeside. The daughter of Christian missionaries, Keren was brought up among the Satere
people in northeastern Brazil. She invited Everett to church and brought him home to meet her family. "They were loving
and caring and had all these groovy experiences in the Amazon," Everett said. "They supported me and told me how great
I was. This was just not what I was used to." On October 4, 1968, at the age of seventeen, he became a born-again
Christian. "I felt that my life had changed completely, that I had stepped from darkness into light-all the expressions you
hear." He stopped using drugs, and when he and Keren were eighteen they married. A year later, the first of their three
children was born, and they began preparing to become missionaries.
In 1976, after graduating with a degree in Foreign Missions from the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, Everett
enrolled with Keren in the Summer Institute of Linguistics, known as S.I.L., an international evangelical organization
that seeks to spread God's Word by translating the Bible into the languages of preliterate societies. They were sent to
Chiapas, Mexico, where Keren stayed in a hut in the jungle with the couple's children-by this time, there were three-while
Everett underwent gruelling field training. He endured fifty-mile hikes and survived for several days deep in the jungle
with only matches, water, a rope, a machete, and a flashlight.
The couple were given lessons in translation techniques, for which Everett proved to have a gift. His friend Peter
Gordon, a linguist at Columbia University who has published a paper on the absence of numbers in Pirahã, says that
Everett regularly impresses academic audiences with a demonstration in which he picks from among the crowd a speaker
of a language that he has never heard. "Within about twenty minutes, he can tell you the basic structure of the language
and how its grammar works," Gordon said. "He has incredible breadth of knowledge, is really, really smart, knows stuff
inside out." Everett's talents were obvious to the faculty at S.I.L., who for twenty years had been trying to make progress
in Pirahã, with little success. In October, 1977, at S.I.L.'s invitation, Everett, Keren, and their three small children
moved to Brazil, first to a city called Belém, to learn Portuguese, and then, a year later, to a Pirahã village at the mouth
of the Maici River. "At that time, we didn't know that Pirahã was linguistically so hard," Keren told me.
There are about three hundred and fifty Pirahã spread out in small villages along the Maici and Marmelos Rivers.
The village that I visited with Everett was typical: seven huts made by propping palm-frond roofs on top of four sticks.
The huts had dirt floors and no walls or furniture, except for a raised platform of thin branches to sleep on. These fragile
dwellings, in which a family of three or four might live, lined a path that wound through low brush and grass near the
riverbank. The people keep few possessions in their huts-pots and pans, a machete, a knife-and make no tools other than
scraping implements (used for making arrowheads), loosely woven palm-leaf bags, and wood bows and arrows. Their only
ornaments are simple necklaces made from seeds, teeth, feathers, beads, and soda-can pull-tabs, which they often get from
traders who barter with the Pirahã for Brazil nuts, wood, and sorva (a rubbery sap used to make chewing gum), and
which the tribe members wear to ward off evil spirits.
Unlike other hunter-gatherer tribes of the Amazon, the Pirahã have resisted efforts by missionaries and government
agencies to teach them farming. They maintain tiny, weed-infested patches of ground a few steps into the forest, where
they cultivate scraggly manioc plants. "The stuff that's growing in this village was either planted by somebody else or it's
what grows when you spit the seed out," Everett said to me one morning as we walked through the village. Subsisting
almost entirely on fish and game, which they catch and hunt daily, the Pirahã have ignored lessons in preserving meats
by salting or smoking, and they produce only enough manioc flour to last a few days. (The Kawahiv, another Amazonian
tribe that Everett has studied, make enough to last for months.) One of their few concessions to modernity is their dress:
the adult men wear T-shirts and shorts that they get from traders; the women wear plain cotton dresses that they sew
"For the first several years I was here, I was disappointed that I hadn't gone to a 'colorful' group of people," Everett
told me. "I thought of the people in the Xingu, who paint themselves and use the lip plates and have the festivals. But
then I realized that this is the most intense culture that I could ever have hoped to experience. This is a culture that's
invisible to the naked eye, but that is incredibly powerful, the most powerful culture of the Amazon. Nobody has resisted
change like this in the history of the Amazon, and maybe of the world."
According to the best guess of archeologists, the Pirahã arrived in the Amazon between ten thousand and forty
thousand years ago, after bands of Homo sapiens from Eurasia migrated to the Americas over the Bering Strait. The
Pirahã were once part of a larger Indian group called the Mura, but had split from the main tribe by the time the
Brazilians first encountered the Mura, in 1714. The Mura went on to learn Portuguese and to adopt Brazilian ways, and
their language is believed to be extinct. The Pirahã, however, retreated deep into the jungle. In 1921, the anthropologist
Curt Nimuendajú spent time among the Pirahã and noted that they showed "little interest in the advantages of
civilization" and displayed "almost no signs of permanent contact with civilized people."
S.I.L. first made contact with the Pirahã nearly fifty years ago, when a missionary couple, Arlo and Vi Heinrichs,
joined a settlement on the Marmelos. The Heinrichses stayed for six and a half years, struggling to become proficient in
the language. The phonemes (the sounds from which words are constructed) were exceedingly difficult, featuring nasal
whines and sharp intakes of breath, and sounds made by popping or flapping the lips. Individual words were hard to
learn, since the Pirahã habitually whittle nouns down to single syllables. Also confounding was the tonal nature of the
language: the meanings of words depend on changes in pitch. (The words for "friend" and "enemy" differ only in the pitch
of a single syllable.) The Heinrichses' task was further complicated because Pirahã, like a few other Amazonian tongues,
has male and female versions: the women use one fewer consonant than the men do.
"We struggled even getting to the place where we felt comfortable with the beginning of a grammar," Heinrichs told
me. It was two years before he attempted to translate a Bible story; he chose the Prodigal Son from the Book of Luke.
Heinrichs read his halting translation to a Pirahã male. "He kind of nodded and said, in his way, 'That's interesting,' "
Heinrichs recalled. "But there was no spiritual understanding-it had no emotional impact. It was just a story." After
suffering repeated bouts of malaria, the couple were reassigned by S.I.L. to administrative jobs in the city of Brasília, and
in 1967 they were replaced with Steve Sheldon and his wife, Linda.
Sheldon earned a master's degree in linguistics during the time he spent with the tribe, and he was frustrated that
Pirahã refused to conform to expected patterns-as he and his wife complained in workshops with S.I.L. consultants. "We
would say, 'It just doesn't seem that there's any way that it does X, Y, or Z,' " Sheldon recalled. "And the standard
answer-since this typically doesn't happen in languages-was 'Well, it must be there, just look a little harder.' " Sheldon's
anxiety over his slow progress was acute. He began many mornings by getting sick to his stomach. In 1977, after
spending ten years with the Pirahã, he was promoted to director of S.I.L. in Brazil and asked the Everetts to take his
place in the jungle.
Everett and his wife were welcomed by the villagers, but it was months before they could conduct a simple
conversation in Pirahã. "There are very few places in the world where you have to learn a language with no language in
common," Everett told me. "It's called a monolingual field situation." He had been trained in the technique by his teacher
at S.I.L., the late Kenneth L. Pike, a legendary field linguist and the chairman of the linguistics department at the
University of Michigan. Pike, who created a method of language analysis called tagmemics, taught Everett to start with
common nouns. "You find out the word for 'stick,' " Everett said. "Then you try to get the expression for 'two sticks,' and
for 'one stick drops to the ground,' 'two sticks drop to the ground.' You have to act everything out, to get some basic
notion of how the clause structure works-where the subject, verb, and object go."
The process is difficult, as I learned early in my visit with the Pirahã. One morning, while applying bug repellent, I
was watched by an older Pirahã man, who asked Everett what I was doing. Eager to communicate with him in sign
language, I pressed together the thumb and index finger of my right hand and weaved them through the air while making
a buzzing sound with my mouth. Then I brought my fingers to my forearm and slapped the spot where my fingers had
alighted. The man looked puzzled and said to Everett, "He hit himself." I tried again-this time making a more insistent
buzzing. The man said to Everett, "A plane landed on his arm." When Everett explained to him what I was doing, the
man studied me with a look of pitying contempt, then turned away. Everett laughed. "You were trying to tell him
something about your general state-that bugs bother you," he said. "They never talk that way, and they could never
understand it. Bugs are a part of life."
"O.K.," I said. "But I'm surprised he didn't know I was imitating an insect."
"Think of how cultural that is," Everett said. "The movement of your hand. The sound. Even the way we represent
animals is cultural."
Everett had to bridge many such cultural gaps in order to gain more than a superficial grasp of the language. "I went
into the jungle, helped them make fields, went fishing with them," he said. "You cannot become one of them, but you've
got to do as much as you can to feel and absorb the language." The tribe, he maintains, has no collective memory that
extends back more than one or two generations, and no original creation myths. Marco Antonio Gonçalves, an
anthropologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, spent eighteen months with the Pirahã in the nineteen-eighties
and wrote a dissertation on the tribe's beliefs. Gonçalves, who spoke limited Pirahã, agrees that the tribe has no creation
myths but argues that few Amazonian tribes do. When pressed about what existed before the Pirahã and the forest,
Everett says, the tribespeople invariably answer, "It has always been this way."
Everett also learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change
from one moment to the next. "So if you show them a red cup, they're likely to say, 'This looks like blood,' " Everett
said. "Or they could say, 'This is like vrvcum vrvcum'-a '-local berry that they use to extract a red dye."
By the end of their first year, Dan Everett had a working knowledge of Pirahã. Keren tutored herself by strapping a
cassette recorder around her waist and listening to audiotapes while she performed domestic tasks. (The Everetts lived in a
thatch hut that was slightly larger and more sophisticated than the huts of the Pirahã; it had walls and a storage room
that could be locked.)
During the family's second year in the Amazon, Keren and the Everetts' eldest child, Shannon, contracted malaria,
and Keren lapsed into a coma. Everett borrowed a boat from river traders and trekked through the jungle for days to get
her to a hospital. As soon as she was discharged, Everett returned to the village. (Keren recuperated in Belém for several
months before joining him.) "Christians who believe in the Bible believe that it is their job to bring others the joy of
salvation," Everett said. "Even if they're murdered, beaten to death, imprisoned-that's what you do for God."Until Everett
arrived in the Amazon, his training in linguistics had been limited to field techniques. "I wanted as little formal linguistic
theory as I could get by with," he told me. "I wanted the basic linguistic training to do a translation of the New
Testament." This changed when S.I.L. lost its contract with the Brazilian government to work in the Amazon. S.I.L.
urged the Everetts to enroll as graduate students at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), in the state of São
Paulo, since the government would give them permission to continue living on tribal lands only if they could show that
they were linguists intent on recording an endangered language. At UNICAMP, in the fall of 1978, Everett discovered
Chomsky's theories. "For me, it was another conversion experience," he said.
In the late fifties, when Chomsky, then a young professor at M.I.T., first began to attract notice, behaviorism
dominated the social sciences. According to B. F. Skinner, children learn words and grammar by being praised for correct
usage, much as lab animals learn to push a lever that supplies them with food. In 1959, in a demolishing review of
Skinner's book "Verbal Behavior," Chomsky wrote that the ability of children to create grammatical sentences that they
have never heard before proves that learning to speak does not depend on imitation, instruction, or rewards. As he put it
in his book "Reflections on Language" (1975), "To come to know a human language would be an extraordinary
intellectual achievement for a creature not specifically designed to accomplish this task."
Chomsky hypothesized that a specific faculty for language is encoded in the human brain at birth. He described it as
a "language organ," which is equipped with an immutable set of rules-a universal grammar-that is shared by all languages,
regardless of how different they appear to be. The language organ, Chomsky said, cannot be dissected in the way that a
liver or a heart can, but it can be described through detailed analyses of the abstract structures underlying language. "By
studying the properties of natural languages, their structure, organization, and use," Chomsky wrote, "we may hope to
gain some understanding of the specific characteristics of human intelligence. We may hope to learn something about
Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, Chomskyans at universities around the world engaged in formal analyses of
language, breaking sentences down into ever more complex tree diagrams that showed branching noun, verb, and
prepositional phrases, and also "X-bars," "transformations," "movements," and "deep structures"-Chomsky's terms for
some of the elements that constitute the organizing principles of all language. "I'd been doing linguistics at a fairly low
level of rigor," Everett said. "As soon as you started reading Chomsky's stuff, and the people most closely associated
with Chomsky, you realized this is a totally different level-this is actually something that looks like science. " Everett
conceived his Ph.D. dissertation at UNICAMP as a strict Chomskyan analysis of Pirahã. Dividing his time between São
Paulo and the Pirahã village, where he collected data, Everett completed his thesis in 1983. Written in Portuguese and
later published as a book in Brazil, "The Pirahã Language and the Theory of Syntax" was a highly technical discussion
replete with Chomskyan tree diagrams. However, Everett says that he was aware that Pirahã contained many linguistic
anomalies that he could not fit into Chomsky's paradigm. "I knew I was leaving out a lot of stuff," Everett told me. "But
these gaps were unexplainable to me."
The dissertation earned Everett a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and a grant from the
National Science Foundation to spend the 1984-85 academic year as a visiting fellow at M.I.T. Everett occupied an office
next to Chomsky's; he found the famed professor brilliant but withering. "Whenever you try out a theory on someone,
there's always some question that you hope they won't ask," Everett said. "That was always the first thing Chomsky
In 1988, Everett was hired by the University of Pittsburgh. By then, Chomsky's system of rules had reached a state
of complexity that even Chomsky found too baroque, and he had begun to formulate a simpler model for the principles
underlying all languages. Everett faithfully kept abreast of these developments. "Chomsky sent me all the papers that he
was working on," he said. "I was like many of the scholars, in that I made regular pilgrimages to sit in Chomsky's classes
to collect the handouts and to figure out exactly where the theory was today." At the same time, Everett says that he was
increasingly troubled by the idiosyncrasies of Pirahã. "None of it was addressed by Chomskyan linguistics," he told me.
"Chomsky's theory only allows you to talk about properties that obtain of tree structures."
In the early nineties, Everett began to reread the work of linguists who had preceded Chomsky, including that of
Edward Sapir, an influential Prussian-born scholar who died in 1939. A student of the anthropologist Franz Boas, Sapir
had taught at Yale and studied the languages of dozens of tribes in the Americas. Sapir was fascinated by the role of
culture in shaping languages, and although he anticipated Chomsky's preoccupation with linguistic universals, he was
more interested in the variations that made each language unique. In his 1921 book, "Language," Sapir stated that
language is an acquired skill, which "varies as all creative effort varies-not as consciously, perhaps, but nonetheless as
truly as do the religions, the beliefs, the customs, and the arts of different peoples." Chomsky, however, believed that
culture played little role in the study of language, and that going to far-flung places to record the arcane babel of
near-extinct tongues was a pointless exercise. Chomsky's view had prevailed. Everett began to wonder if this was an
entirely good thing.
"When I went back and read the stuff Sapir wrote in the twenties, I just realized, hey, this really is a tradition that we
lost," Everett said. "People believe they've actually studied a language when they have given it a Chomskyan formalism.
And you may have given us absolutely no insight whatsoever into that language as a separate language."
Everett began to question the first principle of Chomskyan linguistics: that infants could not learn language if the
principles of grammar had not been pre-installed in the brain. Babies are bathed in language from the moment they acquire
the capacity to hear in the womb, Everett reasoned, and parents and caregivers expend great energy teaching children how
to say words and assemble them into sentences-a process that lasts years. Was it really true that language, as Chomsky
asserted, simply "grows like any other body organ"? Everett did not deny the existence of a biological endowment for
language-humans couldn't talk if they did not possess the requisite neurological architecture to do so. But, convinced that
culture plays a far greater role than Chomsky's theory accounted for, he decided that he needed to "take a radical
reëxamination of my whole approach to the problem."
In 1998, after nine years as the chairman of the linguistics department at the University of Pittsburgh, Everett became
embroiled in a dispute with the new dean of the arts and sciences faculty. Keren was completing a master's in linguistics
at the university and was being paid to work as a teaching assistant in Everett's department. Everett was accused of
making improper payments to Keren totalling some two thousand dollars, and he was subjected to an audit. He was
exonerated, but the allegation of misconduct infuriated him. Keren urged him to quit his job so that they could return to
the jungle and resume their work as missionaries among the Pirahã.
It had been more than a decade since Everett had done any concerted missionary work-a reflection of his waning
religious faith. "As I read more and I got into philosophy and met a lot of friends who weren't Christians, it became
difficult for me to sustain the belief structure in the supernatural," he said. But he was inclined to return to the Amazon,
partly because he hoped to rekindle his faith, and partly because he was disillusioned with the theory that had been the
foundation of his intellectual life for two decades. "I couldn't buy Chomsky's world view any longer," Everett told me,
"and I began to feel that academics was a hollow and insignificant way to spend one's life."
In the fall of 1999, Everett quit his job, and on the banks of the Maici River he and Keren built a two-room,
eight-by-eight-metre, bug- and snake-proof house from fourteen tons of ironwood that he had shipped in by boat. Everett
equipped the house with a gas stove, a generator-driven freezer, a water-filtration system, a TV, and a DVD player. "After
twenty years of living like a Pirahã, I'd had it with roughing it," he said. He threw himself into missionary work,
translating the Book of Luke into Pirahã and reading it to tribe members. His zeal soon dissipated, however. Convinced
that the Pirahã assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either. He declared
himself an atheist, and spent his time tending house and studying linguistics. In 2000, on a trip to Porto Velho, a town
about two hundred miles from the village, he found a month-old e-mail from a colleague at the University of Manchester,
inviting him to spend a year as a research professor at the school. In 2002, Everett was hired to a full-time position, and
he and Keren moved to England. Three years later, he and Keren separated; she returned to Brazil, where she divides her
time between the Pirahã village and an apartment in Porto Velho. He moved back to the United States last fall to begin
the new job at Illinois State. Today, Everett says that his three years in the jungle were hardly time wasted. "This new
beginning with the Pirahã really was quite liberating," he told me. "Free from Chomskyan constraints, I was able to
imagine new relationships between grammar and culture."It is a matter of some vexation to Everett that the first article on
the Pirahã to attract significant attention was written not by him but by his friend (and former colleague at the University
of Pittsburgh) Peter Gordon, now at Columbia, who in 2004 published a paper in Science on the Pirahã's understanding
of numbers. Gordon had visited the tribe with Everett in the early nineties, after Everett told him about the Pirahã's
limited "one," "two," and "many" counting system. Other tribes, in Australia, the South Sea Islands, Africa, and the
Amazon, have a "one-two-many" numerical system, but with an important difference: they are able to learn to count in
another language. The Pirahã have never been able to do this, despite concerted efforts by the Everetts to teach them to
count to ten in Portuguese.
During a two-month stay with the Pirahã in 1992, Gordon ran several experiments with tribe members. In one, he
sat across from a Pirahã subject and placed in front of himself an array of objects-nuts, AA batteries-and had the Pirahã
match the array. The Pirahã could perform the task accurately when the array consisted of two or three items, but their
performance with larger groupings was, Gordon later wrote, "remarkably poor." Gordon also showed subjects nuts, placed
them in a can, and withdrew them one at a time. Each time he removed a nut, he asked the subject whether there were any
left in the can. The Pirahã answered correctly only with quantities of three or fewer. Through these and other tests,
Gordon concluded that Everett was right: the people could not perform tasks involving quantities greater than three.
Gordon ruled out mass retardation. Though the Pirahã do not allow marriage outside their tribe, they have long kept their
gene pool refreshed by permitting women to sleep with outsiders. "Besides," Gordon said, "if there was some kind of
Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you'd see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds over.
They don't show any of that."
Gordon surmised that the Pirahã provided support for a controversial hypothesis advanced early in the last century
by Benjamin Lee Whorf, a student of Sapir's. Whorf argued that the words in our vocabulary determine how we think.
Since the Pirahã do not have words for numbers above two, Gordon wrote, they have a limited ability to work with
quantities greater than that. "It's language affecting thought," Gordon told me. His paper, "Numerical Cognition Without
Words: Evidence from Amazonia," was enthusiastically taken up by a coterie of "neo-Whorfian" linguists around the
Everett did not share this enthusiasm; in the ten years since he had introduced Gordon to the tribe, he had determined
that the Pirahã have no fixed numbers. The word that he had long taken to mean "one" (hoi, on a falling tone) is used by
the Pirahã to refer, more generally, to "a small size or amount," and the word for "two" (hoi, on a rising tone) is often
used to mean "a somewhat larger size or amount." Everett says that his earlier confusion arose over what's known as the
translation fallacy: the conviction that a word in one language is identical to a word in another, simply because, in some
instances, they overlap in meaning. Gordon had mentioned the elastic boundaries of the words for "one" and "two" in his
paper, but in Everett's opinion he had failed to explore the significance of the phenomenon. (Gordon disagrees, and for a
brief period the two did not speak.)
Shortly after Gordon's article appeared, Everett began outlining a paper correcting what he believed were Gordon's
errors. Its scope grew as Everett concluded that the Pirahã's lack of numerals was part of a larger constellation of "gaps."
Over the course of three weeks, Everett wrote what would become his Cultural Anthropology article, twenty-five thousand
words in which he advanced a novel explanation for the many mysteries that had bedevilled him. Inspired by Sapir's
cultural approach to language, he hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has
affected every aspect of the people's lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the
Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions-and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett
pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the
boundaries of their direct experience-which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living
has seen and heard. "When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone
away but xibipío xibipío-'gone out of experience,' " Everett said. "They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The
-'light 'goes in and out of experience.' "
To Everett, the Pirahã's unswerving dedication to empirical reality-he called it the "immediacy-of-experience
principle"-explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Pirahã had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking,
"Have you met this man?" Told that Christ died two thousand years ago, the Pirahã would react much as they did to my
using bug repellent. It explained their failure to build up food stocks, since this required planning for a future that did not
yet exist; it explained the failure of the boys' model airplanes to foster a tradition of sculpture-making, since the models
expressed only the momentary burst of excitement that accompanied the sight of an actual plane. It explained the Pirahã's
lack of original stories about how they came into being, since this was a conundrum buried in a past outside the
experience of parents and grandparents.
Everett was convinced that the Pirahã's immediacy-of-experience principle went further still, "extending its
tentacles," as he put it, "deep into their core grammar," to that feature that Chomsky claimed was present in all languages:
recursion. Chomsky and other experts use the term to describe how we construct even the simplest utterances. "The girl
jumped on the bed" is composed of a noun phrase ("the girl"), a verb ("jumped"), and a prepositional phrase ("on the
bed"). In theory, as Chomsky has stressed, one could continue to insert chunks of language inside other chunks ad
infinitum, thereby creating a never-ending sentence ("The man who is wearing a top hat that is slightly crushed around the
brim although still perfectly elegant is walking down the street that was recently resurfaced by a crew of construction
workers who tended to take coffee breaks that were a little too long while eating a hot dog that was . . ."). Or one could
create sentences of never-ending variety. The capacity to generate unlimited meaning by placing one thought inside
another is the crux of Chomsky's theory-what he calls, quoting the early-nineteenth-century German linguist Wilhelm von
Humboldt, "the infinite use of finite means."
According to Everett, however, the Pirahã do not use recursion to insert phrases one inside another. Instead, they
state thoughts in discrete units. When I asked Everett if the Pirahã could say, in their language, "I saw the dog that was
down by the river get bitten by a snake," he said, "No. They would have to say, 'I saw the dog. The dog was at the beach.
A snake bit the dog.' " Everett explained that because the Pirahã accept as real only that which they observe, their speech
consists only of direct assertions ("The dog was at the beach"), and he maintains that embedded clauses ("that was down
by the river") are not assertions but supporting, quantifying, or qualifying information-in other words, abstractions.
In his article, Everett argued that recursion is primarily a cognitive, not a linguistic, trait. He cited an influential
1962 article, "The Architecture of Complexity," by Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, cognitive
psychologist, and computer scientist, who asserted that embedding entities within like entities (in a recursive tree
structure of the type central to Chomskyan linguistics) is simply how people naturally organize information. "Microsoft
Word is organized by tree structures," Everett said. "You open up one folder and that splits into two other things, and that
splits into two others. That's a tree structure. Simon argues that this is essential to the way humans organize information
and is found in all human intelligence systems. If Simon is correct, there doesn't need to be any specific linguistic
principle for this because it's just general cognition." Or, as Everett sometimes likes to put it: "The ability to put
thoughts inside other thoughts is just the way humans are, because we're smarter than other species." Everett says that the
Pirahã have this cognitive trait but that it is absent from their syntax because of cultural constraints.
Some scholars believe that Everett's claim that the Pirahã do not use recursion is tantamount to calling them stupid.
Stephen Levinson, the neo-Whorfian director of the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for
Psycholinguistics, in the Netherlands, excoriated Everett in print for "having made the Pirahã sound like the mindless
bearers of an almost subhumanly simple culture." Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist at the Australian National University, was
also troubled by the paper, and told me, "I think from the point of view of-I don't know-human solidarity, human rights,
and so on, it's really very important to know that it's a question that many people don't dare to raise, whether we have the
same cognitive abilities or not, we humans."
Everett dismissed such criticisms, since he expressly states in the article that the unusual aspects of the Pirahã are
not a result of mental deficiency. A Pirahã child removed from the jungle at birth and brought up in any city in the
world, he said, would have no trouble learning the local tongue. Moreover, Everett pointed out, the Pirahã are supremely
gifted in all the ways necessary to insure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of
all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and
they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts,
and small game. "They can out-survive anybody, any other Indian in this region," he said. "They're very intelligent
people. It never would occur to me that saying they lack things that Levinson or Wierzbicka predict they should have is
calling them mindless idiots. "
For Everett, the most important reaction to the article was Chomsky's. In an e-mail to Everett last April, Chomsky
rejected Everett's arguments that the Pirahã's lack of recursion is a strong counterexample to his theory of universal
grammar, writing, "UG is the true theory of the genetic component that underlies acquisition and use of language." He
added that there is "no coherent alternative to UG." Chomsky declined to be interviewed for this article, but referred me to
"Pirahã Exceptionality: A Reassessment," a paper that was co-authored by David Pesetsky, a colleague of Chomsky's at
M.I.T.; Andrew Nevins, a linguist at Harvard; and Cilene Rodrigues, a linguist at UNICAMP. In the paper, which was
posted last month on the Web site LingBuzz, a repository of articles on Chomskyan generative grammar, the authors used
data from Everett's 1983 Ph.D. dissertation, as well as from a paper that he published on Pirahã in 1986, to refute his
recent claims about the language's unusual features-including the assertion that the Pirahã do not use recursion. The
authors conceded that, even in these early works, Everett had noted the absence of certain recursive structures in Pirahã.
(The tribe, Everett wrote in the early eighties, does not embed possessives inside one another, as English speakers do
when they say, "Tom's uncle's car's windshield . . ."). Nevertheless, they argued, Everett's early data suggested that the
Pirahã's speech did contain recursive operations.
The fact that Everett had collected the data twenty-five years ago, when he was a devotee of Chomsky's theory, was
irrelevant, Pesetsky told me in an e-mail. At any rate, Pesetsky wrote, he and his co-authors detected "no sign of a
particularly Chomskyan perspective" in the descriptive portions of Everett's early writings, adding, "For the most part,
those works are about facts, and the categorizing of facts."
Everett, who two weeks ago posted a response to Pesetsky and his co-authors on LingBuzz, says that Chomsky's
theory necessarily colored his data-gathering and analysis. " 'Descriptive work' apart from theory does not exist," he told
me. "We ask the questions that our theories tell us to ask." In his response on LingBuzz, Everett addressed his critics'
arguments point by point and disputed the contention that his early work was more reliable than his current research as a
guide to Pirahã. "I would find the opposite troubling-i.e., that a researcher never changed their mind or found errors in
their earlier work," he wrote. He added, "There are alternatives to Universal Grammar, and the fact that NPR"-Nevins,
Pesetsky, and Rodrigues-"insist on characterizing the issue as though there were no alternatives, although typical, is either
ignorant or purposely misleading."
In a comment on Everett's paper published in Cultural Anthropology Anthropology, Michael Tomasello, the director of the
Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology,
in Leipzig, endorsed Everett's conclusions that culture can shape core grammar. Because the Pirahã "talk about different
things [than we do], different things get grammaticalized," he wrote, adding that "universal grammar was a good try, and
it really was not so implausible at the time it was proposed, but since then we have learned a lot about many different
languages, and they simply do not fit one universal cookie cutter."
Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, who wrote admiringly about some of Chomsky's ideas in his 1994
best-seller, "The Language Instinct," told me, "There's a lot of strange stuff going on in the Chomskyan program. He's a
guru, he makes pronouncements that his disciples accept on faith and that he doesn't feel compelled to defend in the
conventional scientific manner. Some of them become accepted within his circle as God's truth without really being
properly evaluated, and, surprisingly for someone who talks about universal grammar, he hasn't actually done the
spadework of seeing how it works in some weird little language that they speak in New Guinea."
Pinker says that his own doubts about the "Chomskyan program" increased in 2002, when Marc Hauser, Chomsky,
and Tecumseh Fitch published their paper on recursion in Science Science. The authors wrote that the distinctive feature of the
human faculty of language, narrowly defined, is recursion. Dogs, starlings, whales, porpoises, and chimpanzees all use
vocally generated sounds to communicate with other members of their species, but none do so recursively, and thus none
can produce complex utterances of infinitely varied meaning. "Recursion had always been an important part of Chomsky's
theory," Pinker said. "But in Chomsky Mark II, or Mark III, or Mark VII, he all of a sudden said that the only thing
unique to language is recursion. It's not just that it's the universal that has to be there; it's the magic ingredient that makes
In early 2005, Pinker and Ray Jacken-doff, a linguistics professor at Tufts University, published a critique of Hauser,
Chomsky, and Fitch's paper in the journal Cognition Cognition. "In my paper with Ray, we argue that if you just magically inject
recursion into a chimpanzee you're not going to get a human who can put words together into phrases, label concepts with
words, name things that happened decades ago or that may or may not happen decades in the future," Pinker said. "There's
more to language than recursion." Pinker and Jackendoff, in a reference to Everett's research, cited Pirahã as an example
of a language that has "phonology, morphology, syntax, and sentences," but no recursion. Pinker, however, was quick to
tell me that the absence of recursion in one of the more than six thousand known languages is not enough to disprove
Chomsky's ideas. "If you had something that was present in five thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine of the languages,
and someone found one language that didn't have it-well, I think there may be some anthropologists who would say,
'This shows that there's no universals, that anything can happen,' " he said. "But, more likely, you'd say, 'Well, what's
going on with that weird language?' "
Contemporary linguists have generally avoided speculation about how humans acquired language in the first place.
Chomsky himself has long demonstrated a lack of interest in language origins and expressed doubt about Darwinian
explanations. "It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to 'natural selection,' " Chomsky has written, "so long as
we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some
naturalistic explanation for these phenomena." Moreover, Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, which was widely
understood to portray language as a complex system that arose fully formed in the brain, discouraged inquiry into how
language developed. "This totally slams the door on the question," Brent Berlin, a cognitive anthropologist at the
University of Georgia, told me. "It acts as if, in some inexplicable way, almost mysteriously, language is hermetically
sealed from the conditions of life of the people who use it to communicate. But this is not some kind of an abstract,
beautiful, mathematical, symbolic system that is not related to real life."
Berlin believes that Pirahã may provide a snapshot of language at an earlier stage of syntactic development. "That's
what Dan's work suggests," Berlin said of Everett's paper. "The plausible scenarios that we can imagine are ones that
would suggest that early language looks something like the kind of thing that Pirahã looks like now."
Tecumseh Fitch, a tall, patrician man with long, pointed sideburns and a boyishly enthusiastic manner, owes his
unusual first name to his ancestor, the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. Fitch attended Brown University
and earned a Ph.D. there. As a biologist with a special interest in animal communication, Fitch discovered that red deer
possess a descended larynx, an anatomical feature that scientists had previously believed was unique to human beings and
central to the development of speech. (The descended larynx has since been found in koalas, lions, tigers, jaguars, and
leopards.) Fitch, eager to understand how humans acquired language, turned to linguistics and was surprised to learn that
Chomsky had written little about the question. But in 1999 Fitch happened to read an interview that Chomsky had given
to Spare Change News News, a newspaper for the homeless in Cambridge. "I read it and all the stuff he said about evolution
was almost more than he's ever said in any published thing-and here it is in Spare Change! Change!" Fitch said. "And he just
made a few points that made me realize what he'd been getting at in a more enigmatic fashion in some of his previous
comments." Fitch invited Chomsky to speak to a class that he was co-teaching at Harvard on the evolution of language.
Afterward, they talked for several hours. A few months later, Chomsky agreed to collaborate with Fitch and Hauser on a
paper that would attempt to pinpoint the features of language which are unique to humans and which allowed Homo
sapiens to develop language. The authors compared animal and human communication, eliminating the aspects of
vocalization that are shared by both, and concluded that one operation alone distinguished human speech: recursion. In the
course of working on the article, Fitch grew sympathetic to Chomsky's ideas and became an articulate defender of the
theory of universal grammar.
When Fitch and Everett met in Porto Velho in July, two days before heading into the jungle, they seemed, by tacit
agreement, to be avoiding talk of Chomsky. But, on the eve of our departure, while we were sitting by the pool at the
Hotel Vila Rica, Everett mentioned two professors who, he said, were "among the three most arrogant people I've met."
"Who's the third?" Fitch asked.
"Noam," Everett said.
"No!" Fitch cried. "Given his status in science, Chomsky is the least arrogant man, the humblest great man, I've ever
Everett was having none of it. "Noam Chomsky thinks of himself as Aristotle!" he declared. "He has dug a hole for
linguistics that it will take decades for the discipline to climb out of!"
The men argued for the next two hours, though by the time they parted for the night civility had been restored, and
the détente was still holding when they met in the Pirahã village the next day and agreed to begin experiments the
At sunrise, a group of some twenty Pirahã gathered outside Everett's house. They were to be paid for their work as
experimental subjects-with tobacco, cloth, farina, and machetes. "And, believe me," Everett said, "that's the only reason
they're here. They have no interest in what we're doing. They're hunter-gatherers, and they see us just like fruit trees to
Fitch went out with Everett into the thick heat, carrying his laptop. The two men, trailed by the Pirahã, followed a
narrow path through the low underbrush to Everett's office, a small hut, raised off the ground on four-foot-high stilts, at
the edge of the jungle. Fitch placed his computer on the desk and launched a program that he had spent several weeks
writing in preparation for this trip.
Fitch's experiments were based on the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, a system for classifying types of grammar,
ranked in ascending order of complexity. To test the Pirahã's ability to learn one of the simplest types of grammar, Fitch
had written a program in which grammatically correct constructions were represented by a male voice uttering one
nonsense syllable (mi or doh or ga ga, for instance), followed by a female voice uttering a different nonsense syllable (lee or
ta or gee gee). ). Correct constructions would cause an animated monkey head at the bottom of the computer screen to float to a
corner at the top of the screen after briefly disappearing; incorrect constructions (anytime one male syllable was followed
by another male syllable or more than one female syllable) would make the monkey head float to the opposite corner.
Fitch set up a small digital movie camera behind the laptop to film the Pirahã's eye movements. In the few seconds'
delay before the monkey head floated to either corner of the screen, Fitch hoped that he would be able to determine, from
the direction of the subjects' unconscious glances, if they were learning the grammar. The experiment, using different
stimuli, had been conducted with undergraduates and monkeys, all of whom passed the test. Fitch told me that he had
little doubt that the Pirahã would pass. "My expectation coming in here is that they're going to act just like my Harvard
undergrads," he said. "They're going to do exactly what every other human has done and they're going to get this basic
pattern. The Pirahã are humans-humans can do this."
Fitch called for the first subject.
Everett stepped outside the hut and spoke to a short muscular man with a bowl-shaped haircut and heavily calloused
bare feet. The man entered the hut and sat down at the computer, which promptly crashed. Fitch rebooted. It crashed
"It's the humidity," Everett said.
Fitch finally got the computer working, but then the video camera seized up.
"Goddam Chomskyan," Everett said. "Can't even run an experiment."
Eventually, Fitch got all the equipment running smoothly and started the experiment. It quickly became obvious that
the Pirahã man was simply watching the floating monkey head and wasn't responding to the audio cues.
"It didn't look like he was doing premonitory looking," Fitch said. "Maybe ask him to point to where he thinks the
monkey is going to go."
"They don't point," Everett said. Nor, he added, do they have words for right and left. Instead, they give directions
in absolute terms, telling others to head "upriver" or "downriver," or "to the forest" or "away from the forest." Everett told
the man to say whether the monkey was going upriver or downriver. The man said something in reply.
"What did he say?" Fitch asked.
"He said, 'Monkeys go to the jungle.' "
Fitch grimaced in frustration. "Well, he's not guessing with his eyes," he said. "Is there another way he can
Everett again told the man to say whether the monkey was going upriver or down. The man made a noise of assent.
Fitch resumed the experiment, but the man simply waited until the monkey moved. He followed it with his eyes, laughed
admiringly when it came to a stop, then announced whether it had gone upriver or down.
After several minutes of this, Fitch said, on a rising note of panic, "If they fail in the recursion one-it's not recursion;
I've got to stop saying that. I mean embedding. Because, I mean, if he can't get this this-" -"
"This is typical Pirahã, Pirahã," Everett said soothingly. "This is new stuff, and they don't do new stuff."
"But when they're hunting they must have those skills of visual anticipation," Fitch said.
"Yeah," Everett said dryly. "But this is not a real monkey." He pointed at the grinning animated head bobbing on
"Fuck!" Fitch said. "If I'd had a joystick for him to hunt the monkey!" He paced a little, then said, "The crazy thing
is that this is already more realistic than the experiments Aslin did with babies."
"Look," Everett said, "the cognitive issue here is the cultural impediment to doing new things. He doesn't know
there's a pattern to recognize."
Everett dismissed the man and asked another Pirahã to come into the hut. A young man appeared, wearing a
green-and-yellow 2002 Brazilian World Cup shirt, and sat at the computer. Everett told him to say whether the monkey
was going to go upriver or downriver.
Fitch ran the experiment. The man smiled and pointed with his chin whenever the monkey head came to rest.
"The other idea," Fitch said, "is if we got a bunch of the kids, and whoever points first gets a lollipop."
"That's got an element of competition that they won't go for," Everett said.
The computer crashed. Convinced that there was a glitch in the software, Fitch picked up the machine and carried it
back to the main house to make repairs.
"This is typical of fieldwork in the Amazon, which is why most people don't do it," Everett said. "But the problem
here is not cognitive; it's cultural." He gestured toward the Pirahã man at the table. "Just because we're sitting in the
same room doesn't mean we're sitting in the same century." By the next morning, Fitch had debugged his software, but
other difficulties persisted. One subject, a man in blue nylon running shorts, ignored instructions to listen to the syllables
and asked questions about the monkey head: "Is that rubber?" "Does this monkey have a spouse?" "Is it a man?" Another
man fell asleep mid-trial (the villagers had been up all night riotously talking and laughing-a common occurrence for a
people who do not live by the clock). Meanwhile, efforts to get subjects to focus were hampered by the other tribe
members, who had collected outside the hut and held loud conversations that were audible through the screened windows.
Steve Sheldon, Everett's predecessor in the Pirahã village, had told me of the challenges he faced in the late sixties
when he did research on behalf of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (an anthropologist and linguist at the University of
California at Berkeley), who were collecting data about colors from indigenous peoples. Sheldon had concluded that the
Pirahã tribe has fixed color terms-a view duly enshrined in Berlin and Kay's book "Basic Color Terms: Their
Universality and Evolution" (1969). Only later did Sheldon realize that his data were unreliable. Told to question tribe
members in isolation, Sheldon had been unable to do so because the tribe refused to be split up; members had
eavesdropped on Sheldon's interviews and collaborated on answers. "Their attitude was 'Who cares what the color is?' "
Sheldon told me. "But we'll give him something because that's what he wants.' " (Today, Sheldon endorses Everett's
claim that the tribe has no fixed color terms.)
Sheldon said that the Pirahã's obstructionist approach to researchers is a defensive gesture. "They have been made
fun of by outsiders because they do things differently," Sheldon told me. "With researchers who don't speak their
language, they make fun, giving really bad information, totally wrong information sometimes."
On the third day, Fitch had figured out that he was being hindered by some of the same problems that Sheldon had
faced. That morning, he tacked up bedsheets over the window screens and demanded that the tribe remain at a distance
from the hut. (Several yards away, Fitch's cousin, Bill, entertained the group by playing Charlie Parker tunes on his
iPod.) Immediately, the testing went better. One Pirahã man seemed to make anticipatory eye movements, although it
was difficult to tell, because his eyes were hard to make out under the puffy lids, a feature typical of the men's faces. Fitch
tried the experiment on a young woman with large, dark irises, but it was not clear that her few correct glances were
anything but coincidental. "Lot of random looks," Everett muttered. "It's not obvious that they're getting it either way,"
On the fourth day, Fitch seemed to hit pay dirt. The subject was a girl of perhaps sixteen. Focussed, alert, and calm,
she seemed to grasp the grammar, her eyes moving to the correct corner of the screen in advance of the monkey's head.
Fitch was delighted, and perhaps relieved; before coming to the Amazon, he had told me that the failure of a Pirahã to
perform this task would be tantamount to "discovering a Sasquatch."
Fitch decided to test the girl on a higher level of the Chomsky hierarchy, a "phrase-structure grammar." He had
devised a program in which correct constructions consisted of any number of male syllables followed by an equal number
of female syllables. Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch, in their 2002 paper, had stated that a phrase-structure grammar, which
makes greater demands on memory and pattern recognition, represents the minimum foundation necessary for human
Fitch performed several practice trials with the girl to teach her the grammar. Then he and Everett stepped back to
watch. "If this is working," Fitch said, "we could try to get N.S.F. money. This could be big-even for psychology."
At the mention of psychology-a discipline that often emphasizes the influence of environment on behavior and thus
is at a remove from Chomsky's naturism-Everett laughed. "Now he's beginning to see it my way!" he said.
The girl gazed at the screen and listened as the HAL-like computer voices flatly intoned the meaningless syllables.
Fitch peered at the camera's viewfinder screen, trying to discern whether the girl's eye movements indicated that she
understood the grammar. It was impossible to say. Fitch would have to take the footage back to Scotland, where it would
be vetted by an impartial post-doc volunteer, who would "score" the images on a time line carefully synchronized to the
soundtrack of the spoken syllables, so that Fitch could say without a doubt whether the subject's eyes had anticipated the
monkey head, or merely followed it. (Last week, Fitch said that the data "look promising," but he declined to elaborate,
pending publication of his results.)
That evening, Everett invited the Pirahã to come to his home to watch a movie: Peter Jackson's remake of "King
Kong." (Everett had discovered that the tribe loves movies that feature animals.) After nightfall, to the grinding sound of
the generator, a crowd of thirty or so Pirahã assembled on benches and on the wooden floor of Everett's "Indian room," a
screened-off section of his house where he confines the Pirahã, owing to their tendency to spit on the floor. Everett had
made popcorn, which he distributed in a large bowl. Then he started the movie, clicking ahead to the scene in which
Naomi Watts, reprising Fay Wray's role, is offered as a sacrifice by the tribal people of an unspecified South Seas island.
The Pirahã shouted with delight, fear, laughter, and surprise-and when Kong himself arrived, smashing through the palm
trees, pandemonium ensued. Small children, who had been sitting close to the screen, jumped up and scurried into their
mothers' laps; the adults laughed and yelled at the screen.
If Fitch's experiments were inconclusive on the subject of whether Chomsky's universal grammar applied to the
Pirahã, Jackson's movie left no question about the universality of Hollywood film grammar. As Kong battled raptors and
Watts dodged giant insects, the Pirahã offered a running commentary, which Everett translated: "Now he's going to fall!"
"He's tired!" "She's running!" "Look. A centipede!" Nor were the Pirahã in any doubt about what was being
communicated in the long, lingering looks that passed between gorilla and girl. "She is his spouse," one Pirahã said. Yet
in their reaction to the movie Everett also saw proof of his theory about the tribe. "They're not generalizing about the
character of giant apes," he pointed out. "They're reacting to the immediate action on the screen with direct assertions
about what they see." In Fitch's final two days of experiments, he failed to find another subject as promising as the
sixteen-year-old girl. But he was satisfied with what he had been able to accomplish in six days in the jungle. "I think
Dan's is an interesting and valid additional approach to add to the arsenal," Fitch told me after we had flown back to
Porto Velho and were sitting beside the pool at the Hotel Vila Rica. "I think you need to look at something as complex
as language from lots of different angles, and I think the angle he's arguing is interesting and deserves more work, more
research. But as far as the Pirahã disproving universal grammar? I don't think anything I could have seen out there would
have convinced me that that was ever anything other than just the wrong way to frame the problem."
On my final night in Brazil, I met Keren Everett, in the gloomy lobby of the hotel. At fifty-five, she is an ageless,
elfin woman with large dark eyes and waist-length hair pulled back from her face. She is trained in formal linguistics, but
her primary interest in the Pirahã remains missionary. In keeping with the tenets of S.I.L., she does not proselytize or
actively attempt to convert them; it is enough, S.I.L. believes, to translate the Bible into the tribal tongue. Keren insists
that she does not know the language well yet. "I still haven't cracked it," she said, adding that she thought she was
"beginning to feel it for the first time, after twenty-five years."
The key to learning the language is the tribe's singing, Keren said: the way that the group can drop consonants and
vowels altogether and communicate purely by variations in pitch, stress, and rhythm-what linguists call "prosody." I was
reminded of an evening in the village when I had heard someone singing a clutch of haunting notes on a rising, then
falling scale. The voice repeated the pattern over and over, without variation, for more than half an hour. I crept up to the
edge of one of the Pirahã huts and saw that it was a woman, winding raw cotton onto a spool, and intoning this
extraordinary series of notes that sounded like a muted horn. A toddler played at her feet. I asked Everett about this, and
he said something vague about how tribe members "sing their dreams." But when I described the scene to Keren she grew
animated and explained that this is how the Pirahã teach their children to speak. The toddler was absorbing the lesson in
prosody through endless repetition-an example, one might argue, of Edward Sapir's cultural theory of language acquisition
"This language uses prosody much more than any other language I know of," Keren told me. "It's not the kind of
thing that you can write, and capture, and go back to; you have to watch, and you have to feel it. It's like someone
singing a song. You want to watch and listen and try to sing along with them. So I started doing that, and I began
noticing things that I never transcribed, and things I never picked up when I listened to a tape of them, and part of it was
the performance. So at that point I said, 'Put the tape recorders and notebooks away, focus on the person, watch them.'
They give a lot of things using prosody that you never would have found otherwise. This has never been documented in
any language I know." Aspects of Pirahã that had long confounded Keren became clear, she said. "I realized, Oh! That's
what the subject-verb looks like, that's what the pieces of the clause and the time phrase and the object and the other
phrases feel like. That was the beginning of a breakthrough for me. I won't say that I've broken it until I can creatively use
the verbal structure-and I can't do it yet."
Keren says that Everett's frustration at realizing that they would have to "start all over again" with the language
ultimately led to his decision to leave the Amazon in 2002 and return to academia. "He was diligent and he was trying to
use his perspective and his training, and I watched the last year that we were together in the village-he just was, like, 'This
is it. I'm out of here.' That was the year I started singing, and he said, 'Damn it if I'm going to learn to sing this
language!' And he was out. It's torment. It is tormenting when you have a good mind and you can't crack it. I said, 'I
don't care, we're missing something. We've got to look at it from a different perspective.' " Keren shook her head.
"Pirahã has just always been out there defying every linguist that's gone out there, because you can't start at the segment
level and go on. You're not going to find out anything, because they really can communicate without the syllables."
Later that day, when Everett drove me to the airport in Porto Velho, I told him about my conversation with Keren.
He sighed. "Keren has made tremendous progress, and I'm sure she knows more about musical speech than I do at this
point," he said. "There's probably several areas of Pirahã where her factual knowledge exceeds mine. But it's not all the
prosody. That's the thing." Keren's perspective on Pirahã derives from her missionary impulses, he said. "It would be
impossible for her to believe that we know the language, because that would mean that the Word of God doesn't work."
Everett pulled into the airport parking lot. It was clear that talking about Keren caused him considerable pain. He did
not want our conversation to end on a quarrel with her. He reminded me that his disagreement is with Chomsky.
"A lot of people's view of Chomsky is of the person in the lead on the jungle path," Everett had told me in the
Pirahã village. "And if anybody's likely to find the way home it's him. So they want to stay as close behind him as
possible. Other people say, 'Fuck that, I'm going to get on the river and take my canoe.' "
April 30, 2007
Monday, December 08, 2008
Thirty years ago Daniel Everett and his young family journeyed to South America as missionaries, hoping to convert the Piraha tribe of the Amazon basin. In the intervening years Everett came to reject his faith, lose his family and challenge many of the basic assumptions that Western academics hold dear regarding language, culture and cognition. He tells us about a nerve racking week lecturing to British academics, joy at Obama's election and trying to keep things in perspective.
Linda and I arrived in Edinburgh at 8.00am after a quick crossing of the Atlantic. I am to begin a week of lectures and interviews to promote my ideas on language and my new book. When I began writing the book that has brought me here, I was sitting at my dining room table in Louisville, Kentucky, with my Rhodesian Ridgeback, Bentley, all 125 pounds of him, lying beside my chair. And now the words that I worried over so intently between cups of coffee, phone calls, meals, errands and a thousand interruptions and lapses in discipline have been released to the world. Apparently I have incurred a moral obligation to defend the integrity and intelligence of this lexical art that I have launched.
The first defense will be over haggis at a local pub. Two professors from Edinburgh, a philosopher and a linguist, are taking us to lunch. And I need to try the haggis. But I know that this culinary experience will also provide an excuse to interrogate me, so I have to be sharp. Try to be that is.
Lunch went well! The haggis was very good, though not as organ-tasting as I had expected, and we take advantage of the beautiful sunshine to walk out our jet lag among the parks and imposing architecture of the Scottish capital. Night brings rest to two shivering travelers from the American South.
Up early for an 8AM interview on BBC London.s InSpirit radio program. I try to sound alert and animated. Afterwards, I work on tomorrow.s lecture for the audience of philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists that have invited me to Scotland. I am worried that I have become so accustomed to communicating my ideas to the general public that I might undershoot the highpowered academic audience that awaits me. But such challenges and uncertainty energize me and sharpen my thinking (or so I like to imagine). I work on my lecture and then Linda and I go for another walk. It is still sunny! Edinburgh couldn.t be more beautiful. Well, perhaps if it were in Hawaii.
In the evening we go for curry with our hosts. Both eminent intellectuals. Between bites of nan and vindaloo, I answer questions about the nature of grammar and what I mean by the abstract concept of .culture.. The four of us stroll after dinner. One of my friends comments that if it had been a man, everyone would think that Blackfriar.s Bobby, whose statue we are passing, was an imbecile for not knowing its master was dead. As he says this, we are passing the coffee bar where JK Rowling began her journey towards wealth and fame writing Harry Potter. The first literary billionaire. Like all authors, I would be satisfied with only a few million dollars. I am not greedy. As we arrive at our hotel, my friend brings me down to earth by telling me how let down he.ll be if I give a bad lecture on Monday. He means this in good fun and I respond likewise: .My lecture is so good, I can.t wait to hear it myself.. I am so funny.
Up early and out for a walk. It is fresh and stimulating. I think of the days that I taught at the University of Manchester. And I miss the United Kingdom. But then I think of my home in Louisville, Hopewood, surrounded by trees and warmth, and the nostalgia passes.
How do you satisfy a mixed audience of academics from various specialties and fields? Each person in the audience is likely to think that they are smarter than you are (and they might be). Each one defines science and the nature of knowledge differently and each has his or her own grasp of what is relevant and what is irrelevant in public presentations and the quest for .Truth. (which I no longer believe in anyway). Ah, but that is what makes academics fun . running the bloodless gauntlet. Coming out with your intellect and reputation intact.
The hour approaches. I have coffee at the University with several of the best linguists in the world. I am psyched. The lecture hour approaches so I walk to the lecture theatre to set up my computer and test my presentation. When the hour arrives the theatre fills. I am very happy. It is depressing for everyone to be in a room that dwarfs the audience. Reminds me of a sexual joke of relative sizes. More than 200 academics fill the seats and even the steps of the auditorium.
The introduction is great, though strange. The one presenting me doesn.t say I am a great linguist per se, but that I am as .honest as the day is long.. Oh wait, I understand. Because of all the controversy about me some folks have suggested that I might have .fudged. my facts a bit. So this introduction makes it clear that one of the most respected intellectuals at Edinburgh trusts me. An honor to be so introduced.
The talk is off to a good start, then. But it gets off track at the end where I ramble about several things that have nothing to do with the main theme of my talk. Damn. Shut up. But no, I keep talking irrelevantly.
Grateful for the silence when I stop blabbering, I am surprised by a great roar of applause. Then thirty minutes of questions. Then another roar. Well, that is not bad. Not bad at all.
A few buy copies of my book at the exit to the lecture hall and ask for autographs. Never having done this before, I am not sure what to do or where in the book to write. A bumbler still.
Off to London before sunrise. After some confusion at the airport regarding the flight numbers, we leave for the great city, arriving just in time for an interview with the Guardian at 11.30. From there my publicist whisks us off to BBC studios to give an interview on Radio Scotland. Afterwards, Linda and I have lunch at the Ivy. Great food. Supposedly there are famous people there, but I wouldn.t know them if they said hello.
In the afternoon we shop a bit and I prepare for a different kind of lecture at University College London, where most in the audience will be opposed to my linguistic theory because they are already committed to the theory of Noam Chomsky. More psychologists, philosophers, linguists, and anthropologists to talk to . with a neuroscientist or two thrown in for good measure.
I am up at 3.30am to look at election returns. HOORAY!! Obama is the new president elect of the United States. McCain and his less than impressive running mate are history. The philosophy of the last 8 years has been soundly rejected. I might actually not mind telling people I am an American for a while.
My first interview of the day is BBC Asia.s Nihal show. He begins with questions about Obama. He is delightful. Munching away on an apple while I answer his questions, smiling and joking. After the cheerful banter we talk about the book.
No two interviewers ever interpret the book in the same way. And I like that. They see things in the book that I didn.t notice. Things I need to think about more.
I check my email after the interview and see emails from various acquaintances, even some who disagree with my views on language, congratulating me on the election. Though I really had nothing to do with it other than a donation.
What am I doing here? I want what I say to help people think, however briefly, about lessons other cultures have learned about life. I don.t want to let my ego crowd anything important out. I need to keep the focus on ideas and the Pirahã people.
The hour comes. I speak at UCL. A very strong introduction. But as I begin, I notice grimaced faces across the room. Ha Ha. They haven.t heard anything yet. The linguists are big fans of Chomsky. I expected no mollycoddling nor hero.s reception here. And I won.t get one. Yet these colleagues have paid me the compliment of attending the lecture and for that I am pleased and grateful.
Following the lecture there is an animated round of questions and objections, then a wine reception. As I am surrounded by people, I see Linda sipping her wine alone in the corner. Academics are so myopic and unable to talk about anything but academics. Linda is probably the smartest one in the room, but she is only an attorney and for academics anyone who is not an academic may as well be an apostate to an Inquisitor. I might be overgeneralizing.
As I talk to people I remember Dad.s bar, Everett.s Inn, and his work as a cowboy. Anyone who wore a tie was a sissy to Dad. I don.t think he was completely wrong, but I do think he underestimated mental rigor in the contesting of ideas. This too is tough. A different kind of pissing contest.
Seven interviews on radio and TV today and a visit to the office of Profile Books, my wonderful publisher.
The radio interviews go as expected. I especially like John McCarthy of Excess Baggage. But as usual, I am more nervous on the televised interview for BBC World Service. My first television interview was in 1963 when I was 12. My band was popular in parts of Southern California in the immediately pre-Beatle days of musical virginity. But I was appalled watching the interview later at my appearance. I remind myself of what I learned then: remain engaged with the interviewer; don.t stop thinking; avoid saying .uh., don.t look at the monitor, look at the interviewer.
After the interviews are over I have some wine with the Profile staff. All heady stuff for a boy from small town California. What would the Pirahãs think of all of this I wonder? Then I laugh to myself, knowing that none of this would be worth a single plate of fish and manioc meal to them. They have their priorities straight.
I end the day with a visit to the headquarters of Survival International, a small group dedicated to offering practical help to indigenous peoples around the world interested in maintaining their traditional cultures and ways of life. Through this meeting, I am brought back to what is really important. The staff at Survival is a great reminder that there are people who do put the powerless before the powerful.
The last day of a busy week. Tomorrow we fly back to Kentucky and get ready to begin a series of talks at US universities . Princeton, Michigan, Stony Brook, and others. Today, though, I have a lunch at UCL, with linguists and neuroscientists.
The lunch is fun. Good questions and issues to think about.
After the sandwiches and sparkling water, I meet Linda for a walk down Charing Cross to see if the book shops are carrying my book, even though it only came out the day before. Yes! Several are displaying it prominently. Others have it stuck in places that are hard to find, so Linda goes up and asks .Do you have that great new book by Dan Everett, Don.t sleep there are snakes?. This gets the clerks looking for it and putting it on the shelves. Linda.s efforts won.t make it a best-seller, but they feel good.
So my time in the UK is at an end for now. An aberrant week or a new chapter in awareness of Amazonian cultures and the life of one American author? We will see.
RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT:
WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS|
A Talk With Daniel L. Everett
The research question that has motivated my work for the last 25.30 years has been, what is the nature of language. This is the question that motivates most linguistics research. But I started off asking it one way and came to the conclusion that asking it that way was probably wrong and I now have a different way of approaching the problem.
My original concern was to think about Language with a capital 'L'. Human Language, what it's like in the brain, what the brain has to be like to sustain the capacity for Language. The most influential ideas for me in my early research were the ideas of Noam Chomsky, principally the proposal that there is an innate capacity for grammar in our genes, and that the acquisition of any given language is simply learning what the different parameter-settings are. What is a parameter?
Here's an example, called the 'pro-drop' parameter. In English we always have to have a subject, even when it doesn't mean anything, like in "it rains".'it' doesn't really refer to anything. 'It' just is necessary because English has to have subjects. But in a language like Spanish or Portuguese, I don't say "it rains," I say just "rains".chuva.in Portuguese, because Portuguese has a positive setting for the pro-drop parameter identified in Chomskyan research. All languages have either a positive (as Portuguese) or negative (as English) setting for this parameter. And it has other effects as well in addition to allowing a language to drop subjects; it entails a number of other characteristics.
It's a very attractive idea that people are born with a genetic pre-specification to set parameters in different ways, the environment serving as a 'trigger'. As Pinker put it, we have an instinct to learn language, and the environment triggers and shapes that instinct. But the environment is nothing more than that in this view.a shaper and a trigger; it is not fundamental to the actual final product in the Pinker-Chomsky view in the way that I have to come to think it actually is. Parameters and language as an instinct are very attractive ideas. Yet at the same time there are a number of components of languages that I've looked at that just don't seem to follow from these ideas.
The essence of human language is, according to Chomsky, the ability of finite brains to produce what he considers to be infinite grammars. By this he means not only that there is no upper limit on what we can say, but that there is no upper limit on the number of sentences our language has, there's no upper limit on the size of any particular sentence. Chomsky has claimed that the fundamental tool that underlies all of this creativity of human language is recursion: the ability for one phrase to reoccur inside another phrase of the same type. If I say "John's brother's house", I have a noun, "house", which occurs in a noun phrase, "brother's house", and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, "John's brother's house". This makes a lot of sense, and it's an interesting property of human language.
But what if a language didn't show recursion? What would be the significance of that? First of all, it would mean that the language is not infinite.it would be a finite language, there could only be limited number of sentences in that language. It would also mean that you could specify the upper size of a particular sentence in that language. That sounds bizarre, until we think of something like chess, which has also got a finite number of moves, but chess is an enormously productive game, it can be played and has been played for centuries, and many of these moves are novel, and the fact that it's finite really doesn't tell us much about its richness, or its importance.
If there were a finite language, because of the lack of recursion, that wouldn't mean that it wasn't spoken by normal humans, nor would it mean that it wasn't a very rich source of communication. But if you lived in an environment in which culture restricted the topics that you talked about, and not only just your general environmental limitations on the topics you talked about, but if there were a value in the culture that said, don't talk about topics that go beyond, say, immediate experience.in other words, don't talk about anything that you haven't seen or that hasn't been told to you by an eyewitness.this would severely limit what you could talk about. If that's the case, then that language might be finite, but it wouldn't be a poor language; it could be a very rich language. The fact that it's finite doesn't mean it's not a very rich language. And if that's the case, then you would look for evidence that this language lacked recursion.
So in the case of Pirahã, the language I've worked with the longest of the 24 languages I've worked with in the Amazon, for about 30 years, Pirahã doesn't have expressions like "John's brother's house". You can say "John's house", you can say "John's brother", but if you want to say "John's brother's house", you have to say "John has a brother. This brother has a house". They have to say it in separate sentences.
As I look through the structure of the words and the structure of the sentences, it just becomes clear that they don't have recursion. If recursion is what Chomsky and Mark Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch have called 'the essential property of language', the essential building block.in fact they've gone so far as to claim that that might be all there really is to human language that makes it different from other kinds of systems.then, the fact that recursion is absent in a language.Pirahã.means that this language is fundamentally different from their predictions.
One answer that's been given when I claim that Pirahã lacks recursion, is that recursion is a tool that's made available by the brain, but it doesn't have to be used. But then that's very difficult to reconcile with the idea that it's an essential property of human language.if it doesn't have to appear in a given language then, in principle, it doesn't have to appear in any language. If it doesn't have to appear in one part of a language, it doesn't have to appear in any part of a language.
It's not clear what causes recursion; in fact, just two weeks ago, at Illinois State University, we held an international conference on recursion in human language, which was the first conference of its kind ever held, and we had researchers from all around the world come and talk about recursion. One interesting thing that emerged from this is that the linguists, mathematicians and computer scientists disagree on what recursion is, and how significant it is. Also, there are many examples of recursion lacking in a number of structures in languages where we otherwise would expect it. So recursion as the essential building block of human language, if Chomsky's correct, is difficult for me to apply as an intellectual trying to build a theory of human language, because it's not clear what it is, and it's not clear that it is in fact essential to different languages.
So as an alternative, what might we say? Well, recursion could occur because human beings are just smarter than species without it. In fact, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Herbert Simon, who taught psychology for many years at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote an important article in 1962 called "The Architecture of Complexity," and in effect, although he doesn't use this word, he argued that recursive structures are fundamental to information processing. He argued that these are just part of the human brain, and we use them not just in language, but in economy, and discussion of problem-solving, and the stories that we tell.
If you go back to the Pirahã language, and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story. That's not part of the grammar per se, that's part of the way that they tell their stories. So my idea is that recursion is absolutely essential to the human brain, and it's a part of the fact that humans have larger brains than other species. In fact, one of the papers at the recursion conference was on recursion in other species, and it talked about how when deer look for food in the forest, they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths. So it's not clear, first of all that recursion is unique to humans, and it's certainly not clear that recursion is part of language as opposed to part of the brain's general processing.
I am engaging in ongoing research on Pirahã, along with other researchers, including some from MIT's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, led by Professor Ted Gibson, and other researchers from the University of Manchester. But my research is also part of a larger project funded by the European Commission, on characterizing human language by structural complexity, and the question we seek to answer there, with a number of researchers from Holland, Germany, and England, is, what is it that makes humans so smart, compared to other species? Is it just bigger brains? That might be the case. Or, are there particular ways that our brain operates that makes it very different from the way that other kinds of brains operate?
Recursion has been proposed in human thinking to be the way that we think that other animals don't. That's very much an open empirical question, but let's say that it's right, in which case recursion once again underlies human thought, but doesn't have to make the jump into human language. You could in principle have a human language that is constrained by the culture, so that the language proper lacks recursion, but the brain has recursion. And that's very difficult to reconcile with Chomsky's ideas on where recursion comes from. Chomsky's absolutely correct to recognize the importance of recursion, but the role that he gives it, and the role that Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch give it, to me has got things backwards. In other words, rather than going from language to the brain, we have to have recursion in language, and then it starts to make its manifestation in other thought processes. It starts in the thought processes and it might or might not jump to language. It does not seem to be an essential property of language, certainly not the essential property of language.
One prediction that this makes in Pirahã follows from the suggestions of people who worked on number theory and the nature of number in human speech: that counting systems.numerical systems.are based on recursion, and that this recursion follows from recursion in the language. This predicts in turn that if a language lacked recursion, then that language would also lack a number system and a counting system. I've claimed for years that the Pirahã don't have numbers or accounting, and this has been verified in two recent sets of experiments, one of which was published in Science three years ago by Peter Gordon, arguing that the Pirahã don't count, and then a new set of experiments which was just carried out in January by people from Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, which establishes pretty clearly that the Pirahã have no numbers, and, again, that they don't count at all.
So the evidence is still being collected, the claims that I have made about Pirahã lacking recursion and the fact that Pirahã is an evidence that there probably isn't a need for universal grammar. Contrary to Chomsky's proposal that universal grammar is the best way to think about where language comes from, another possibility is just that humans have different brains that are different globally from those of other species, that they have a greater general intelligence that can be exploited for all sorts of purposes in human thinking and human problem-solving. And one of the biggest problems we have to solve is how to communicate with other people.our conspecifics.and communication with our conspecifics is a problem that's often solved by recursion, but it doesn't have to be solved that way, it can be solved in other ways, especially in very small societies where so much information is implicit and held in common.
The ongoing investigation of these claims and alternatives to universal grammar, an architectonic effect of culture on grammar as whole, and the implications of this for the way that we've thought about language for the last 50 years are serious. If I am correct then the research so ably summarized in Steve Pinker's book The Language Instinct might not be the best way to think about things. Maybe there is no language instinct. So this is very controversial, and a lot more research has to be done. My colleagues and I are writing grants to test these claims. The only way that you can check out what I am saying is just to test the claims. Clearly formulate the claims and counterproposals, and go out and test them. If Everett's right, they ought to have this; and if he's wrong, we ought to find this. It's very simple conceptually to test the claims; you just have the logistical problems of the Amazon and a group that's monolingual and speaks no language but their own.
I don't think Pirahã is the only language that exhibits these qualities. What I think is that a lot of people are just like me in my beginning years of work there; they are given a set of categories to work with from their theories, and are told, these are the categories that languages have. So if you don't find a certain category, you just have to keep looking according to the theory. It takes a lot of courage, or, as in my case, frustration more than courage to say, Look, I'm not finding these things, so I'm just going to say they don't have the categories the theory predicts. Period. Say I am right about this. What are the implications?
I think that if we look at other groups.maybe groups in New Guinea and Australia, and some groups in Africa.what we have to find are groups that have been isolated, for various reasons, from larger cultures. The Pirahã's isolation is due to their very strong sense of superiority, and disdain for other cultures. Far from thinking of themselves as inferior because they lack counting, they consider their way of life the best possible way of life, and so they're not interested in assimilating other values.
They have another interesting value, which is 'no coercion'. That's one of the strongest Pirahã values; no coercion; you don't tell other people what to do.
I originally went to the Amazon to convert the Pirahã, to see them all become Christians, to translate the New Testament into their language. My only degree was an undergraduate degree from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and I went down there with the knowledge of New Testament Greek and a little bit of anthropology and linguistics.
When I first started working with the Pirahã, I realized that I needed more linguistics if I was going to understand their language. When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?
I started thinking about what I had been doing all along, which was, give myself a social environment in which I could say things that I really didn't have any evidence for.assertions about religion and beliefs that I had in the Bible. And because I had this social environment that supported my being able to say these things, I never really got around to asking whether I knew what I was talking about. Whether there was any real empirical evidence for these claims.
The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists.they need evidence for every claim you make.helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs. At the same time, I had started a Ph.D. program in linguistics at the University of Campinas in southern Brazil, and I was now in the middle of a group of very intelligent Brazilian intellectuals, who were always astounded that someone at a university doing a Ph.D. in linguistics could believe in the things I claimed to believe in at the time. So it was a big mixture of things involving the Pirahã, and at some point I realized that not only do I not have any evidence for these beliefs, but they have absolutely no applicability to these people, and my explanation of the universe.
I sat with a Pirahã once and he said, what does your god do? What does he do? And I said, well, he made the stars, and he made the Earth. And I asked, what do you say? He said, well, you know, nobody made these things, they just always were here. They have no concept of God. They have individual spirits, but they believe that they have seen these spirits, and they believe they see them regularly. In fact, when you look into it, these aren't sort of half-invisible spirits that they're seeing, they just take on the shape of things in the environment. They'll call a jaguar a spirit, or a tree a spirit, depending on the kinds of properties that it has. "Spirit" doesn't really mean for them what it means for us, and everything they say they have to evaluate empirically. This is what I hadn't been doing, and this challenged the faith that I thought I had, to the extent that I realized that it wasn't honest for me to continue to claim to believe these things when I realized how little investigation I had done into the nature of the things I claimed to believe.
I went to Brazil in 1977 as a missionary. I started my graduate program in 1979. By 1982, I was pretty sure that I didn't believe in the tenets of Christianity or any other religion or creeds based on the supernatural. But there's a social structure when you're a missionary, one that includes the income for you and your entire family as well as all of the relationships you've built up over the years. All the people you know and like and depend on are extremely religious and fundamentalist in their religion. It's very difficult to come out and say, "I don't believe this stuff any more". When I did say that, which was probably 13 years later, it had severe consequences for me personally. It's a difficult decision for anyone. I have a couple of friends whom I've told that it must be something like what it's like to come out as gay, to finally admit to your family that your values are just very very different from theirs.
My wife is still a missionary in Brazil to the Pirahã, and we've been separated for three years, and my view is pretty much irreconcilable with hers. It's difficult.it means that I don't go to that village when she's there. I don't go there and tell the Pirahãs not to believe in Jesus or anything like that. Actually I don't need to tell them that, because there's no danger that they ever will. They just find the entire concept.our beliefs.useless for them.
They wouldn't find the Pope remotely impressive; they would find his clothes very impractical, and they would find it very funny. I took a Pirahã to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, for health reasons once, to go to a hospital, and I took him to the Presidential Palace. As the president of Brazil was coming out, there was all this fanfare and I said, That's the chief of all Brazilians. Uh huh. Can we go eat now? He was totally uninterested; the whole concept just sounds silly to them.
The first time I took a Pirahã on an airplane, I got a similar reaction. I was flying a man out for health reasons; he had a niece who needed surgery and he was accompanying her. We're flying above the clouds, and I know that he's never seen clouds from the top before, so I point down and I say, those are clouds down there. Uh huh. He was completely uninterested; he acted like he flew in planes every day. The Pirahã are not that curious about what we have. They haven't shown interest in a number of things that other indigenous groups, even Amazonian groups, that have come out and had contact with in civilization for the first time are curious about. The Pirahã have been in regular contact for a couple of hundred years now, and they have assimilated almost nothing. It's very unusual.
The reason that I believe that the Pirahã are like this is because of the strong cultural values that they have.a series of cultural values. One principle is immediacy of experience; they aren't interested in things if they don't know the history behind them. If they haven't seen it done. But there's also just a strong conservative core to the culture; they don't change, and they don't change the environment around them much either. They don't make canoes. They live on the river, and they depend on canoes for their daily existence.someone's always fishing, someone's always crossing the river to hunt and gather.but they don't make canoes. If there are no Brazilian canoes, they'll take the bark off a tree and just sit in that and paddle across. And that's only good for one or two uses.
I brought in a Brazilian canoe master, and spent days with them and him in the jungle; we selected the wood, and made a dugout canoe. The Pirahã did all the labor.so they knew how to make a canoe, and I gave them the tools.but they came to me and they said, we need you to buy us another canoe. I said, well we have the tools now, and you guys can make canoes. But they said, Pirahã don't make canoes. And that was the end of it. They never made a canoe like the Brazilians, even though I know that some of them have the skills to do that.
In the 1700s, the first Catholic mission to the Amazon area made contact with the Pirahã and the related people, the Muras, and abandoned them after a few years as the most recalcitrant group they had ever encountered. Other missionaries have worked with the Pirahã since then. Protestant missionaries have worked with them since about 1958, and there's not a single convert, there's not a single bit of interest.
A lot of people say that I'm a failure as a missionary. A lot of missionaries say I'm a failure.my ex-wife thinks I'm a failure as a missionary.and the reason they give is, I don't have enough faith. If you have enough faith, the story goes, God will overcome all of these things. But if you say that you should know that god is up against some serious cultural barriers. The Pirahã have a cultural taboo against talking about the world in certain ways, and the Christian message violates these.
They have the other cultural value against coercion that I mentioned. Religion is all about coercion.telling people how they should live and giving them a list of rules to live by.and the Pirahã just don't have coercion in that form. If someone were really violent and disrupted the entire life of the community, they would be ostracized; they might even be killed. But that would be a very serious pathological case in the culture. By and large, they tolerate differences, and even children aren't told what they have to do that much. Life is hard enough; if children don't do what they have to do, they'll go hungry. There's just no place for the Western concept of religion in their culture at all.
When a group receives this much publicity; you get different reactions. First of all, you get a lot of people who want to go there and investigate, until they see how difficult it is to get there, and how in fact they don't speak Portuguese and it's going to take a couple of years to be able to communicate with the Pirahã, even at a fairly simple level. This discourages people.
There are also a number of people who are upset that the group that they've been working with for 10 or 15 or 20 years didn't get any publicity. Scientists.linguists and anthropologists in particular.are very reticent to say that one group is somehow more special than another group because if that's the case, then you've made discoveries that they haven't made. I really think that's probably right. I don't think the Pirahã are special in some deep sense. They're certainly very unusual, and they have characteristics that need to be explained, but all of the groups in the Amazon have different but equally interesting characteristics. I think that one reason we fail to notice, when we do field research, the fundamental differences between languages is because linguistic theory over the last 50 years.maybe even longer.has been primarily directed towards understanding how languages are alike, as opposed to how they are different.
If we look at the differences between languages.not exclusively, because what makes them alike is also very very important.the differences can be just as important as the similarities. We have no place in modern linguistic theory for really incorporating the differences and having interesting things to say about the differences. So when you say that this language lacks X, we will say, well, that's just an exotic fact: so they lack it, no big deal. But when you begin to accumulate differences across languages around the world, maybe some of these things that we thought were so unusual aren't as unusual and could in fact turn out to be similarities. Or, the differences could be correlated with different components that we didn't expect before. Maybe there's something about the geography, or something about the culture, or something about other aspects of these people that account for these differences. Looking at differences doesn't mean you throw your hands up and say there's no explanation and that you have nothing more than a catalog of what exists in the world. But it does develop a very different way of looking at culture and looking at language.
Missionaries have gone to the Pirahãs, learned their language more or less, and then left after a few years. There is a Brazilian anthropologist, Marco Antonio Gonçalves, who teaches at the University of Rio. He spent 18 months off and on working with them, and he speaks the language at a very basic level. The tones are part of what make it so difficult for people who haven't had a lot of linguistic training, but it's just like Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Korean, in the fact that the tones are very important to the meanings of the words. This is really difficult for a lot of researchers without a significant linguistic background. I now have two researchers working with me from the University of Manchester: a Ph.D. student who's writing her Ph.D. on recursion or the absence thereof among the Pirahã; and a postdoc on a grant of mine whose research is looking at how well the Pirahã speak Portuguese, and if they do know some Portuguese, what kinds of grammatical characteristics does it have.does their Portuguese show anything that violates what I say about Pirahã itself? Both of these people, Jeannette Sakel and Engenie Stapert, are learning Pirahã, and I've encouraged them to learn the language, and given them some lessons.
What happens is with some people is that they go to the Pirahãs with me and I translate for them and help them get going. For people who do ongoing research of their own.many people have gone to the Pirahã with the idea that they're going to develop a multi-year research program and I'm going to be their partner every time they go.
I don't have the time to go with every researcher who wants to work with the Pirahã; I have my own research agenda. I've tried to help them to start learning the language, and most people sort of disappear after that. Tecumseh Fitch went with me last summer and he would like to go again, and maybe he will. But I think that the best way for anyone to go again is to invest the time to learn enough of the language to do their own research. There's also the fact that if anybody has to go with me, people can then say that my influence is so pervasive that you could never test what I'm saying, because I'm behind every single experiment.
Peter Gordon and I were colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, and Peter did his Ph.D. at MIT in psychology, with a strong concern for numerosity. We were talking, and I said, there's a group that doesn't count.I work with a group that doesn't count.and he found that very difficult to believe, so he wanted to go do experiments. He went, and I helped him get going; he did the experiments, but his explanation for the reason that the Pirahã don't count is that they don't have words for numbers. They only have one to many. I claim that in fact they don't have any numbers. His idea is that the absence of counting in Pirahã has a Whorfian explanation.that there's a linguistic determinism: if you lack numbers, you lack counting.that is, that the absence of the words causes the absence of the concepts. But this really doesn't explain a lot of things. There are a lot of groups that have been known not to have more than one to many.as soon as they got into a relationship where they needed it for trade, they borrowed the numbers from Portuguese or Spanish or English or whatever other language.
The crucial thing is that the Pirahã have not borrowed any numbers.and they want to learn to count. They asked me to give them classes in Brazilian numbers, so for eight months I spent an hour every night trying to teach them how to count. And it never got anywhere, except for a few of the children. Some of the children learned to do reasonably well, but as soon as anybody started to perform well, they were sent away from the classes. It was just a fun time to eat popcorn and watch me write things on the board. So I don't think that the fact that they lack numbers is attributable to the linguistic determinism associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf, i.e. that language determines our thought.I don't really think that goes very far. It also doesn't explain their lack of color words, the simplest kinship system that's ever been documented, the lack of recursion, and the lack of quantifiers, and all of these other properties. Gordon has no explanation for the lack of these things, and he will just say, "I have no explanation, that's all a coincidence".
Some people have suggested that since this a small society it's not unreasonable to hypothesize that there's a lot of inbreeding, and that this has made one particular gene much more prevalent in the society. Maybe Pirahã uniqueness is genetic in origin. People have asked me to do DNA tests, but my research has already been attacked for being borderline racist, because I say that the people are so different. So the last thing that I want to do is be associated with DNA testing. Somebody else can go there and do that. I don't think they have a closed gene pool, even though it's a small group of people. River traders come up frequently, and it's not uncommon for Pirahã to trade sex for different items off the boat that they want. So I don't think that genetics is relevant at all here.
Most inhabitants of the Brazilian Amazon are descended from Brazilian Indians, but now they would just consider themselves Brazilians. The Brazilians the Pirahãs most often see have boats, and they just come up the Pirahãs' river to buy Brazil nuts. In exchange, they bring machetes, gunpowder, powdered milk, sugar, whiskey and so forth. The Pirahãs are usually interested in acquiring these things. They don't accumulate Western goods, but if you've got consumables, the Pirahã might buy, say, two pounds of sugar, pour it in a bowl and eat it all at once. They're not going to put it on the shelf and save it; they'll just eat it when they get it.
It depends on the river trader, but sex is also a very common trade item. So you see these foreign babies being raised among the Pirahã. It's mainly the husband who works out the deal. Single women can negotiate on their own; wives wouldn't make that offer unless their husband negotiated it. In their dealings with outsiders, men take the lead, and the women won't usually come around unless they're called by Pirahã men. But promiscuity is not a problem for the Pirahã. It doesn't violate any values that they have.
I remember one time sitting in a hut with the Pirahã and they came and they said, we understand that you want to tell us about Jesus and that Jesus tells us that we should live certain ways. Since you love Jesus, this is an American thing.but we don't want to live like you. We want to live like Pirahã, and we do lots of other things that you don't do, and we don't want to be like you. They've noticed these characteristics, and they much prefer to have the values that they have.
The paper I wrote that has attracted all the attention is "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã", published in the anthropology journal, Current Anthropology, in 2005. It would have been almost impossible to get this article.for one thing, it was 25,000 words, and for another thing it was so controversial.in a linguistics journal. Also, I chose this journal because it has a much higher circulation than any linguistics journal. And also the anthropology journal Current Anthropology invites commentators, a feature I really like. In my case, they had eight well-known linguists and anthropologists and psychologists comment on the paper. And the press picked up on it. You can never predict, obviously, when the press is going to pick up on something. But it started getting reported in magazines. And a lot of it was twisted; it wasn't exactly what I said, but it got a lot of play on radio, was in a lot of magazines. And everyone had the spin that this was.in fact I say it in the article.that this is a very strong counter-example to the kinds of claims that Chomsky makes. And I knew that there would be a response eventually, as it got more and more press.
David Pesetsky is a professor at MIT, Andrew Nevins was a student at MIT who now holds a temporary appointment in Linguistics at Harvard, and Cilene Rodrigues is a Brazilian linguist who I think is doing her Ph.D. at MIT. They decided that they would write a reply to my article. The interesting thing is that I'm the main source of data on Pirahã. Now, the best way to check out what I'm saying would be to get some research funds to go down there and do experiments and test this stuff. But what they decided to do was to look at my doctoral dissertation, and where I describe the grammar of Pirahã, and find inconsistencies between my doctoral dissertation and what I'm saying now. And there are some. And I say in the Current Anthropology article that there are inconsistencies, and that the 2005 article supersedes my previous work. And all of those decisions to change my mind on this or that analytical point were based on a lot of thought about what I had said previously and how it compared to my current knowledge.
My doctoral dissertation was written when I was using a certain set of grammatical categories common among most linguists, and I did my very best to make Pirahã come out and look like a 'normal' language. So there are a couple of small examples of things that look like recursion in my doctoral dissertation. In fact I call them that. So the authors of the rebuttal dwell on these discrepancies. And then they try to counter my claims in the paper. Also, they refer to some unpublished studies by Steven Sheldon in which it is claimed that Pirahã has color words and number words. And they refer to an introduction to a dissertation on Pirahã that says that they speak Portuguese. And you do find these things in the studies they cite. But these are all written by people who either were not professional linguists, or who didn't speak the language. If you take the color words, Sheldon did in fact claim that the Pirahã had color words. But if you look at them, 'mii sai', which he translated as 'red', means 'like blood'. All of the color words in fact are just descriptions. This looks like blood, this looks like water, this looks like the sky, or this looks like a fire, or something like this. There can be any number of expressions. With regard to their ability to speak Portuguese, the Pirahã men do understand very simple Portuguese, just enough to trade with the river traders. Now if I went to Paris, I could probably get directions to the nearest bathroom, but that doesn't mean I speak French. I don't. That's roughly the Pirahãs' level of Portuguese.
So Pesetsky, Nevins, and Rodrigues were very careful in their criticisms, they worked very long and hard, they took months to do this. Then they posted it to a Web site called Ling Buzz, and it started being downloaded because of all the press on Pirahã.in the first few days there were 700 downloads. Every day it's getting dozens more downloads. I was actually trying to write something else at the time when I saw the reply, but I reluctantly put that aside to reply to their work. I replied to them point by point. The only part of their article that irritated me was the insinuations that because I focused on negative aspects of Pirahã, I was perhaps racist. They didn't use the term "racist," but they insinuated that I might have a negative view of the Pirahã as a people because I was only focusing on the gaps in the language. But I pointed out that I published over 40 articles on Pirahã, and a book, and that all of those mainly talked about things they did have, not the gaps that they had. I put my reply on Ling Buzz, that's now the top-loaded paper on Ling Buzz, so those two papers are still getting downloaded a lot, and there's a debate going on. I don't know if they're planning a reply to my reply, but the way things go, they probably are.
When I saw this, I wrote the three of them, and I said, you've put me in the interesting situation of pitting Dan Everett at 55 against Dan Everett at 26. Because, I said, all the data you use are my data. So I'll just have to explain why when I wrote my doctoral dissertation I didn't know as much about Pirahã as I know now. Their objection is that even though I published extensively, I haven't published on all of these things previously. And so one of the many projects that I'm engaged in right now, along with several other people, mainly this group of researchers at MIT, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, is an experimental grammar of Pirahã, where we basically rewrite the grammar of Pirahã and do experiments to substantiate or test as many points as we can. If I had written all of this before I came out with the claims, I would never have come out with the claims. You have to make the claims and see the controversies, see what people say about them, to be sure you have the data. So I turned over all of my data to other researchers, and they're in the process of digitizing it, and eventually all these data will be on the Web, translated.it'll take a couple of years, but then you won't actually have to go to the Pirahã, you can look at the data, and you can search through the data and see if you can find counter-examples, or find other things that I've missed, and I'm sure people will.
When I was interviewed for Der Spiegel, I was at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and my next-door neighbor was Tecumseh Fitch. We were talking about this quite a bit.he was my next-door neighbor both at the Institute and in the apartment building that we lived in, so we talked quite a bit, and went out a few times.and he made a comment about the fact that he didn't really believe the significance of what I was saying to the Der Spiegel reporter, and so I wrote a reply to him, copying Noam Chomsky and Mark Hauser. And I actually thought that Tecumseh would be the one to respond, because that's who the letter was directed to, but in fact I immediately got a long response from Chomsky, followed by other long emails.
Initially it was a very interesting exchange. I know Noam fairly well, I've known his work most of my career and I've read everything he's ever written in linguistics.I could have written his responses myself. I don't mean to be flippant, but they were re-statements of things that everybody knows that he believes. I think that it's difficult for him to see that there is any alternative to what he's saying. He said to me there is no alternative to universal grammar; it just means the biology of humans that underlies language. But that's not right, because there are a lot of people who believe that the biology of humans underlies language but that there is no specific language instinct. In fact at the Max Planck, Mike Tomasello has an entire research lab and one of the best primate zoos in the world, where he studies the evolution of communication, and human language, without believing in a language instinct or a universal grammar.
I've mainly followed Mike's research there because we talk more or less the same language, and he's more interested in directly linguistic questions than just primatology, but there's a lot of really interesting work in primatology.looking at the acquisition of communication and finding similarities that we might not have thought were there if we believe in a universal grammar.
I think that the way that Chomskyan theories developed over the last 50 years has made it completely untestable now. It's not clear what usefulness there is in the notion of universal grammar. It appeals to the public at large, and it used to appeal to linguists, but as you work more and more with it, there's no way to test it.I can't think of a single experiment.in fact I asked Noam this in an e-mail, what is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it? What prediction does it make? And he said, It doesn't make any predictions; it's a field of study, like biology.
Now that is not quite right. No scientist can get by without believing in biology, but it's quite possible to study human language without believing in universal grammar. So UG is really not a field of study in the same sense. I think the history of science shows that the people who develop a theory and who are responsible for the development of the theory are rarely the people who come forward and say: whoops, I was wrong, we need to actually work at it another way, this guy over here had the right idea. It's rare for that to happen. Noam is not likely to say this.
I want to have well-designed experiments to test my claims on recursion; I want to have mores studies of the Pirahã grammar from people working outside my influence. The more people who can look at this independently, the more likely it is that others are going to start to believe this, because I think it's going to be shown to be correct. If it's wrong, that's also important. The tests have to be done, and then if there is evidence that I might be onto something, we have to look at other languages. And other languages in similar situations where they've been cut off for one reason or another from outside influences for long periods of time. And re-examine those languages in light of the possibility that languages can vary more than we thought. And maybe the categories that we have aren't the best categories.
We need more fieldwork. Linguists have gotten away from fieldwork over the last 50 years. There's more interest in endangered languages now than there was a few years ago, but there's just now beginning to be a resurgence of the field work ethic among linguists, and the idea that we can't figure out everything that we need to know just by looking at grammars that have been written, without going and seeing the language in the cultural context.
And that's really the biggest research question that I have for the future: What evidence is there that culture can exercise an architectonic effect on the grammar .that it can actually shape the very nature of grammar, and not simply trigger parameters.
STEVEN PINKER [6.13.07]
I have favorably cited Daniel Everett.s work with the Pirahã, both in a scholarly article and in my forthcoming book, and believe that linguists should take his criticisms of the field seriously. But I have become increasingly skeptical of the strong version of his claims, and of the importance that has been attached to his work by the media.
1. Everett claims that Pirahã violates Charles Hockett.s famous list of language universals in that it provides no means to discuss events remote from experience. That claim is belied by many of Everett.s own observations.
To take just the most obvious example, he writes that .spirits and the spirit world play a very large role in their lives.. Assuming that they don.t literally see ghosts and spirits (which would be a discovery far more radical than any of the linguistic or psychological claims at issue) they must have a richly developed, culturally transmitted set of beliefs about entities and events that lie outside the realm of their immediate experience.
Everett.s claim that Pirahã lacks the mechanism of recursive embedding (in which a word or phrase can be inserted inside a word or phrase of the same type) must be qualified as well. Pirahã allows for a degree of semantic embedding using verb suffixes and conversions of nouns to verbs (so one can express the thought .I said that Kó.oí intends to leave,. with two levels of semantic embedding), and one can conjoin propositions within a sentence, as in .We ate a lot of the fish, but there was some fish we did not eat.. Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues give further examples. It is questionable of Everett to disavow his own data on the grounds that at the time he was in the grip of ideology.his current stance is as polemical and tendentious as anything in Chomskyan linguistics.
2. Whatever grain of truth there may be to the observation that the Pirahã are more concerned with the here-and-now than we are, it is by no means unique to the Piraha. On the contrary, the observation has been by numerous scholars about numerous foraging and nonstate peoples. For example, in the 19th century, Alfred Russel Wallace observed of the Indonesian natives he met during his fieldwork:
Compare this [European culture) with the savage languages, which contain no words for abstract conceptions; the utter want of foresight of the savage man beyond his simplest necessities; his inability to combine, or to compare, or to reason on any general subject that does not immediately appeal to his senses. ...
The great linguist Otto Jespersen made similar observations about native Hawaiians, and an anthropologist I know had the same impression (expressed in private) of the !Kung San he worked with in the Kalahari. I suspect that this is simply the default impression that modern Europeans or Americans have of many native peoples, but with the rise of politically correct anthropology in the 20th century, one wasn.t allowed to say such things in public directly. In this background, Everett could claim that he was making a discovery about a trait that was unique to the culture he studied, whereas it was only the prior taboo against saying these things about other peoples that made the observation seem novel. By framing his observations as an anti-Chomsky discovery rather than as un-PC Eurocentric condescension, Everett was able to get away with claims that would have aroused the fury of anthropologists in any other context. This is not to say that there is no difference in the amount of abstract thinking between foraging and postindustrial societies, just that Everett (and the journalists that have reproduced his claims) are almost certainly wrong in writing that this is unique to the Pirahã, or even unusual among nonliterate peoples.
(The same is true, incidentally, of their counting system. .One, two, many. systems are widespread among foraging peoples, and may be the default counting system among nonliterate peoples.)
3. Everett's truly radical linguistic claim is not about Universal Grammar, and his main opponent is not Chomsky. His radical claim is about variation.the non-universal aspects of language.and his opponents in this debate are probably 99% of linguists, including most non-Chomskyans.
One of the great findings of linguistics, vastly underappreciated by the rest of the intellectual world (and probably not highlighted enough by linguists themselves) is that the non-universal, learned, variable aspects of language don't fit into any meaningful, purposive narrative about the surrounding culture. Linguists have documented vast amounts of variation, and have a good handle on many of its causes, but the causes are internal to language (such as phonological assimilation and enhancement, semantic drift, and syntactic reanalysis) and aren't part of any symbolic or teleological plan of the culture. There are Subject-Object-Verb and Subject-Verb-Object languages, and tone and non-tone language, and null-subject and non-null-subject languages, but there are no SOV or SVO cultures, null-subject and non-null-subject cultures, and so on. The variation is just as autonomous as the universals. And this is the discovery that Everett is trying to overturn in his claim that the linguistic properties of Pirahã are meaningfully explained by an overarching theme in their culture, namely their alleged unwillingness to think about concepts that lie outside their immediate experience. As I mentioned, numerous observations by Everett himself are inconsistent with this remarkable claim, and Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues show that the connection between his claims about their culture and the details of their language is tenuous at best.
DANIEL EVERETT [7.14.07]
I appreciate Steve Pinker's response to my work, even though it is negative, because it provides me yet another opportunity to clarify my statements on Pirahã. It is always interesting to me to see how people read into what I am saying about Pirahã based on their own theoretical backgrounds. The influence of our theoretical and other biases on the way that we interpret the world around us is further illustration of my general point that language and grammar can be deeply affected by culture. But let me be more specific. I will respond to each section of his criticism.
1. Self-contradictory: Pinker is persuaded by his own reading of my work and the criticism of my work in the paper by Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues, that my recent work contradicts my previous work in ways that cannot be attributed merely to my previous theoretical baggage, i.e. that I worked within Chomskyan theory. The first example he gives is that the Pirahãs rich and textured beliefs about spirits cannot be fit into my principle of immediacy of experience.
But there is nothing in the immediacy of experience principle . which, by the way, is merely a very small part of the intricate web of values of Pirahã culture . that claims that the Pirahãs cannot have detailed explanations of the world they live in. This principle claims simply that they have to have direct evidence of the things they talk about. And there is no claim that this principle is unique to the Pirahãs. The claim is, rather, that this principle constrains Pirahã language in ways we don't see in other cultures.
Not that other cultures don't have similar values. It is the interaction of cultural values and grammar that makes each language unique in a profound sense. Pirahãs do see spirits. I have seen an entire village yelling at a spirit on a beach on which they claim to see a spirit but where I can see nothing. But they also believe that spirits manifest themselves as different animals and people. And seeing such an animal counts as seeing a spirit, literally. This is not at all uncommon of course, cross-culturally. So a Pirahã can see a jaguar and say that they have seen a spirit and believe it, depending on their spiritual state at the time. I have almost lost my life by going out to 'scare off' a spirit at their request at 3AM, only to realize that the spirit was a jaguar!
I claim that the Pirahãs lack recursion in the syntax. I made no such claim about their semantics or their discourse, for example. In fact, I have given many examples of recursion in discourse as different ideas are contained in others within the main and subordinate story lines. My claim is about syntax. And the examples that Pinker uses to show self-contradiction in my account were mistranslated (by me) initially.
The word translated 'but' in his example does not mean that exactly and can be used in isolated clauses as in 'But I give this to you' or 'But I am watching the river'. In these cases, what the speaker means is that what I am doing violates your expectations (since giving normally involves an expectation of receiving something in return, in this case there is nothing expected in return; and in the second case it means that the Pirahã is idly watching the water and has no other purpose.
Pinker's (and others') reaction to the idea that my present account could be violating my previous accounts shows a profound lack of familiarity with the nature of linguistic fieldwork, something that none of the major critics of my work so far have had any experience with.
2.I think that it probably is correct that hunters and gatherers generally attribute, by necessity, more importance to the here and now than many of us in Western societies with huge surpluses of resources. I am not claiming that this is unique among the Pirahãs. Nor do I see why such a banal statement should outrage anthropologists or anyone else.
What is unusual, perhaps unique, about the Pirahãs (though, again, nothing at all hinges on them being unique in any of these matters) is the way in which they have codified a principle of immediacy of experience and the way in which it constrains their grammar. My comments are not those of a tourist, such as Otto Jespersen on Hawaiian. They are based on years of trying to figure out what made the Pirahãs different from other Amazonian groups . a difference which everyone who has seen the Pirahãs and other Amazonian groups notices almost immediately.
And I have done field research on 23 other Amazonian groups in addition to the Pirahãs. Based on this cross-cultural research, I have made a proposal. This proposal is not based on the Pirahãs' intelligence, genetics, or any perceived inferiority on their part whatsoever. It is based on what seems to be a cultural taboo on certain ways of speaking. Nothing more.
With regard to their counting system, Pinker has it wrong again. Pirahãs do not have 'one', 'two', and 'many'. That indeed is a common system. Rather, the Pirahãs have no numbers whatsoever and no counting, not even tallying, whatsoever. This claim has been tested in recent work by researchers from MIT's Brain and Cognitive Science Department and a paper is underway to report the results of those tests.
3. Pinker is right that my quarrel is not merely with Chomsky (by now the whole idea of a language instinct or universal grammar is so vacuous and untestable as to hardly warrant a criticism from me or anyone else in any case), but with the field of linguistics more generally. As Sapir warned, it can be very misguided and unscientific to attempt to correlate broad features of culture, e.g. cattle-breeding, with specific linguistic properties, e.g. whether the language mainly has the order Subject Verb Object or not. But there is absolutely nothing similar in that to what I am proposing.
I identify a specific cultural value, needed independently, and unusual syntactic properties, independently recognized, and propose a connection between them that can be tested. Linguistics needs to look harder at such culture-grammar connections. It has been misguided, in my opinion, for not doing so. In a way this is similar to the resurgence of work on language evolution. For some time the speculations on the origins of language were so unscientific and spurious that serious scientists spurned them and said that concern for language evolution was unscientific. In the same way, earlier speculations on culture's influence on language and grammar were so unscientific as to merit strong criticism and the avoidance of this issue altogether. But I am asking that we reconsider this and proceed to a more scientific approach to possible language-culture pairings.
My claim is that there is no such thing as 'just a language' and that the homogenizing efforts of Pinker and others, focusing principally on theories that stretch and chop grammars to fit preconceived notions of what a language should look like do the science of linguistics a serious disservice. Each language in this sense, while sharing cognitive and communicative principles in common with all other languages spoken by Homo sapiens, is unique. This is why it is such a tragedy when a language dies . we don't just lose a grammar. We lose an entire way of thinking and talking about the world; we lose a set of solutions to the problems that beset us all as humans.
The Pirahãs enrich the world through the brilliance and uniqueness of the interaction of their culture and language. Just like all languages and cultures do.Stumble It!