Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Daniel Everett: Don't Sleep, There are Snakes

What's not to like? A passionate description of an exotic culture. Wild jungle, wild animals and wild times. Stories of learning by an 'educated' white guy from 'uneducated' natives. And as if that wasn't enough - there's enough fieldwork data to severely rock Chomskian linguistics to the core.

Dan Everett spent 20 years or more living with the Pirahã on the banks of the Madeira river in the Amazonian rainforest. His mission – in more ways than one – was to learn the language of these ‘primitive’ people in order to translate the bible into their language so they could be converted – presumably into ‘civilised’ people who fear and worship God. As Dan learned more about the Pirahã, anthropology and linguistics it became clear to him why his mission was pointless. The ‘primitive’ Pirahã, it seems, have a core value which dictates a large part of their lives: they are pure empiricists. They do not believe anything that they have not witnessed themselves – or, at a stretch, what is reported by a reliable witness. So, when Dan the missionary is asked how he knows Jesus, the good book just doesn’t cut it with these people. Apparently, these primitive people do not believe when someone tells them about what someone wrote down thousands of years about someone else they had never met in another language in another country. Funny that – well, funny that we should believe it. In fact, they do not believe in any mythical metaphysical explanation for why we were put on earth. They just get on with it.

So, why is that important for linguistics? Bear with me for a moment. According to the generative school of linguistics, created by Noam Chomsky over 50 years ago, language is pre-wired into human brains. Chomsky and his followers, including Pinker, have spent enormous time, energy and research dollars trying to prove exactly what it is that unites ALL human languages – if language is innate, as they claim, one would expect to find a wide range of common features across all languages past and present. Well, it seems that they have only been able to find one common feature – it’s called recursion. Recursion is generally agreed to cover aspects of language which repeat themselves inside themselves. A great example is (This is the cat that chased the mouse that ate the malt that stood in) ‘The house that Jack built’. We see here how a structure in language can repeat itself inside itself – in English this can be accomplished using relative clauses – presumably ad infinitum. We can also see how, using conjunctions for example, clauses can be added to each other, and added to each other, and added to each other, and added to each other… etc. So, let’s get back to Everett. What Everett found that has upset generative grammarians is that the Pirahã language appears to have no recursion at all. There is no embedding of ideas inside other ideas. There is no joining of sentences to make longer sentences. Each idea is separate and self-complete. This claim, and the claim that the Pirahã cultural value of empiricism affects their language as well as their culture, has been tested by other anthropologists and linguists. In general, they confirm Everett’s analysis.

Just as in horticulture, the Amazon rainforest has provided us with an exotic species that turns our understanding of medicine, biology or horticulture on its head. In this case, an Amazonian culture and language has demanded that the inductive-driven linguistics of the late 20th Century rethink its fundamental principles. If recursion is the only factor common to all human languages, and recursion is not common to one language, then there is no common factor and so the assumption that humans come ‘pre-loaded’ with language can no longer stand the weight of evidence.

There is one thing that I do not like about the stories that Everett provides. It seems tragic that anyone wanting to become a missionary, even in the 20th-21st centuries, is provided with all the necessary resources to live with an indigenous group of people. Meanwhile, anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists can barely find the money to study language groups in their own countries. The happy ending for us (but not for Dan, who is now divorced from his missionary wife) is that Everett makes the transition from missionary to linguist and anthropologist as a consequence of his encounters with the Pirahã.

Thanks to Phyllis & Alistair Burns who gave me the book for Christmas.
Another lazy cut'n'paste review from my Goodreads site

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