Notes on

Colapinto, J. (2007). The interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? The New Yorker 83(8): 119-137. (BB)

For more info see Everett's webpage and WIkipedia. Everett has some recordings; note why Piraha has been described as relying on tones. Some of his papers reveal why these arguments may seem more like a holy war than scientific disagreement.


I.     Religion and linguistics

A.  The long history of religion and linguistics

1.    Sanskrit and Panini (560-420BC)

a)   Panini –born in what is now Pakistan -- is recognized as a brilliant linguist who wrote the first known grammar to capture the language of the Gods, Sanskrit.   Sanskrit is the oldest known member of the Indo-European language family.

2.    Bringing the Word of God to the others remains a top linguistic objective!

B.  The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)

1.     (a major goal is to bring the Bible to the natives in their own dialects.)

C.  Everett

1.    "Booming" voice of former Evangelical minister.

2.    E “eventually abandon Christianity”

3.    Former born again rock and roller..

4.    Did a PhD :  “Transformational G of Piraha”

5.    Way over-criticizes Chomsky—everyone agrees words and culture are close associates but only some words have an impact on the grammar.  It does seem right to say “culture plays a far greater role than Chomsky’s theory accounted for.: p.126  Chomsky would agree as well.

6.    E also abandons Chomsky!

a)   “Free from Chomskian constraints, I was able to imagine new relationships between grammar and culture.” 127  “he (NC) has dug a hole for linguistics…..

7.    Dispute with the Dean!

8.    Middle aged crisis—back to nature

9.    Piraha not interested in the bible!

10.E wasn’t either!!

11.Self-declared atheist

12.E is ‘vexed’ that Peter Gordon (2004) published a paper on Piraha lack of numbers.  From this account, Piraha are worse than bluejays, not to mention apes!

II.   Piraha (‘Pee-da Han’)

A.  People

1.    350 or so in Amazon region

B.  Language

1.    “Simple” sound system (8C, 3V, tones)--(famous last words--tones)

2.    no numbers

3.    no quantifiers (every, all, each, most, few)

4.    no evidence of recursion

5.    male and female versions

6.    no color names (use comparisons “like blood”)

C.  culture

1.    P consider all other forms of discourse “laughably inferior.”

2.    Everett denigrates the P at every opportunity

3.    They do wear modern clothes, T shirts, and hand sewn dresses.

4.    Minimal collective memory (no more than two generations recall, no “original” creation myths)

(At least this is the account given by the observers.)

D.  Abilities

1.    Gordon ruled out mass retardation as new genes enter with outside women.  (But who would marry these guys!)  No observable evidence of disease or retardation.

2.    E believes numbers are just one of a number(!) of cognitive gaps due to the Piraha “living-in-the-present” culture.

3.    Piraha are the last of real Behaviorists.  According to  E they are “committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Piraha do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths.”

(JL- not far from the University in Gulliver's travels where words were eliminated completely in favor of objects.. (Swift, 1723))

4.    Reality is what they see or hear or what someone living has seen or heard.  Or maybe they’re a Phenomenologist cult?

5.    E believes Piraha have no recursion in their language.  “Instead they state thoughts in discrete units.”  (Maybe like some aphasics?)  Somehow he believes culture constrains the appearance of recursion in their speech. They don’t point, use left or right –“instead they give directions in absolute terms.

6.    E believes a Piraha child would adapt to any culture as we believe all humans would.

7.    E seems impatient and perhaps really didn’t understand Piraha after all?  See Keren’s remarks about E at the end of the paper where he’s quoted saying  “Damn if I’m going  to learn to sing this language.”137

III. the linguists and friends

A.  Pinker (psychology)—recursion per se is overblown. See my Language in Child and Chimp paper, 1977 on this point too!  Pinker is also not that happy with Chomsky’s lack of interest in language evolution.

B.  Chomsky (review basics-creativity of L)

1.    E says C is “brilliant yet withering”  Duh!

2.    But C says languages best studied from within, by native speakers.  So train the natives…

3.    The idea that Chomsky limited inquiry is a lot more about the lame linguists/anthropologists, p132, than Chomsky..!

C.  Fitch (biologist)—tried some dubious experiments on the Piraha but if they think like Behaviorists, treat them like pigeons.

D.  Gordon (young linguist, numbers)

E.   Pike (dead old linguist)

F.   Sapir (dead very old… (as in Sapir-Whorf hypothesis))

G.  Boas (dead very old..)

H.  Everett himself

1.    Believes language just reflects cognitive structure.

2.    “the problem culture not cognition”

I.     Weirzbica (studies differences and similarities in semantics across languages—does interesting work.)

J.   Pesetsky (linguist and colleague of Chomsky), wrote critique of E’s recursion claims.

K.  Sheldon- E’s SIL predecessor with the Piraha

1.    P are obstructionist “researchers who don’t speak their language, they make fun, giving really bad information sometimes.”  (probably even to those that do speak Piraha, JL)

L.   Keren Everett- also SIL linguist and E’s ex-wife.

1.    She seems to give a different view of Piraha—a language based on prosody—changes in pitch (FF). “I won’t say that I’ve broken it until I can creatively use the verbal structure—and I can’t do it yet.” (after 25 years.)  Yet how can  one sing without syllables? 137.

IV.          implications for linguistic theory?

A.  Probably few; much more interesting for understanding acquisition and the relation between L, culture, and cognitive processes.