Challenging Chomsky

Universal grammar is the most important theory in linguistics. Has the language of one tribe now disproved it?
June 29, 2007

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?

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Chomsky has been eminent in linguistics since he wrote The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory in 1955—it is no accident that he came out top in Prospect's poll of global public intellectuals in 2005. There are many who resent his guru-like status, and Everett's renegade approach has made him into a cult figure. Judging by his article in the New Yorker, Colapinto fell for Everett's outsider appeal: the piece pits Chomsky against former followers like Pinker, who is quoted as likening Everett's research to "a bomb thrown into the party." While Everett spends years with the Pirahã in the field, learning and living their language, Colapinto suggests, Chomsky theorises from a distance. And former Chomsky collaborator W Tecumseh Fitch, who visited the Pirahã at the same time as Colapinto, is portrayed as the bumbling academic, with his laptop crashing and the locals' lack of interest in him making a general mockery of his attempt to study them.

So far so good. But when I check with Pinker, he steps back from some of his comments. While he is still not sure about Chomsky's concept of recursion (he has replied to it in depth, with Ray Jackendoff), he reckons that even if Chomsky is wrong, it doesn't mean that Everett is right. "Indeed, the more I have read about and pondered Everett's story, the less persuaded I am." What Everett claims about the Pirahã, Pinker suggests, is far from novel: numerous scholars have made similar remarks about the "foraging peoples" since the 19th century. Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, observed the following of the Indonesian natives he met during his fieldwork: "Compare this [European culture] with the savage languages, which contain no words for abstract conceptions; consider the want of foresight of the savage… his inability to combine or compare."

Such attitudes have disappeared from the university reading lists, which is not to say that they are either radical or new: "By framing his observations as an anti-Chomsky discovery rather than as Eurocentric condescension, Everett was able to get away with it," says Pinker. Everett's research might have looked like a "bomb thrown into the party" at first, but they closer you study it, the more it looks like a dud.

Chomsky himself has stayed quiet on the subject. He refers enquirers to a comprehensive analysis of Everett's argument by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues, which was posted on the linguistics website LingBuzz in March. Recursion, they admit, may after all turn out to be more variable than previously anticipated, but that is not to say that the Pirahã are exceptional—in fact, a similar lack of pronominal possessor recursion can be observed in German.

The biggest problem is that Everett is still the only non-Pirahã who claims to speak and understand their language properly. Until someone else learns the language, or until one of the tribesmen familiarises himself with linguistic theory, we will not be able to judge whether Everett is taking the academic world for a ride or has made a real discovery.

For further details on the Pirahã dispute, see the Prospect Blog and the first of our academic spat-watch posts.