Universal grammar is the most important theory in linguistics. Has the language of one tribe now disproved it?by Philip Oltermann / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
Judging by reports, the Pirahã are an ordinary sort of folk. It is said of them that they can be aloof at a first encounter, but that they enjoy chatting and socialising, and that they like a drink or two—not unlike your average Brit. And yet over the last 12 months there has been quite a buzz around this obscure little tribe from the Brazilian rain forest: planes have been landing in their village on a weekly basis, carrying futuristic technical equipment and hot-headed scientists. Last July, John Colapinto, a journalist from the New Yorker, spent a week with them. In April, the magazine ran a lavish 18-page photo feature on the tribe.
Tribal culture, of course, is not only rife in the Amazon, but also in academic circles—an insight that goes some way towards accounting for the hype around the Pirahã. In 2005, the American anthropologist Daniel Everett published an article in Current Anthropology in which he presented his insights into Pirahã life, acquired over years spent living with the tribe. Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth. Pirahã culture, Everett suggested, was so exceptional that its existence fundamentally contradicted basic beliefs about language, and packed a powerful punch against the man whose theories led to those beliefs: Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky is generally attributed with introducing the notion of a “universal grammar,” the linguistic programming in our brain which means that all humans construct language according to the same set of rules. The “UG” hypothesis is accepted by most linguists, and it underlies many of the popular bestsellers about language, such as Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. In 2002, Chomsky co-authored a paper with Marc Hauser and W Tecumseh Fitch for Science which developed the idea further. They argued that it is the concept of “recursion” that makes language special. Language is infinitely expressive, it argues, because we can endlessly embed one sentence into another: any possible long sentence could be topped by adding “Mary thinks that…” Daniel Everett, in a polemical inversion, thinks that Chomsky is wrong: his argument is that the Pirahã don’t do recursion, therefore there can be no universal grammar. What if language is not genetically given but culturally generated?