Well, sort of.
Recently, we carried a piece by Tom Bethell on linguist Noam Chomsky’s dissent from Darwin. Many, of course, have sought to bring about the octagenarian’s fall, for various reasons, and the latest contender is among the most interesting.
A missionary who lost his faith, Daniel Everett is already a movie waiting for Hollywood: He claims that the people he tried to evangelize don’t need saving and have a language that will overturn Chomsky.
But before any Hollywood premiere, it’s worth asking whether Everett actually has it right. Answering that question is not straightforward, in part because it hinges on a bit of grammar that no one except linguists ever thinks about. It’s also made tricky by the fact that Everett is the foremost expert on this language, called Pirahã, and one of only a handful of outsiders who can speak it, making it tough for others to weigh in and leading his critics to wonder aloud if he has somehow rigged the results.
More than any of that, though, his claim is difficult to verify because linguistics is populated by a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both. Such divisions exist, to varying degrees, in all disciplines, but linguists seem uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as does “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.”
With that in mind, why should anyone care about the answer? Because it might hold the key to understanding what separates us from the rest of the animals.
Not likely, of course, but it’s a good story hook.
Everett claims that the Piraha do not use recursion (embedding) which Chomsky claimed in a paper to be the “only uniquely human component” of human language: For example,
UD News asked Bill Dembski, who founded this blog, why he thought that Journal A had accepted an Evolutionary Informatics Lab paper but Journal B hadn’t.
(The different sentences are colour coded.) One guesses that there are other unique components of human language vs. animal language as well. But finding a language that allegedly doesn’t use them does not – to an observer – prove Chomsky wrong, unless his thesis depends on the practice being both universal and necessary. And he has been hard to pin down.
The Pirahã language is remarkable in many respects. Entire conversations can be whistled, making it easier to communicate in the jungle while hunting. Also, the Pirahã don’t use numbers. They have words for amounts, like a lot or a little, but nothing for five or one hundred. Most significantly, for Everett’s argument, he says their language lacks what linguists call “recursion”—that is, the Pirahã don’t embed phrases in other phrases. They instead speak only in short, simple sentences.
It’s hard to see why recursion is essential. One could express the thought in the colour-coded sentence above as follows:
Bill Dembski founded this blog.
UD News asked Bill Dembski a question.
Journal A accepted an Evolutionary Informatics Lab paper. Why?
Journal B didn’t accept the Evolutionary Informatics Lab paper. Why not?
No one would thank us for communicating this way, hence recursion was invented. On the other hand, if we had to whistle it all at you in a podcast, maybe the Piraha no-recursion way would prove more effective.
Similarly, people can get on fine without words for numbers if they needn’t ever do arithmetic. It doesn’t follow that the speakers of a numbers-free language can’t identify small differences in amounts. Or that they couldn’t or wouldn’t develop both recursion and arithmetic if they need and want to. Or learn them from some other group.
In the end, the fundamental difference between human and animal language is the content, the ideas expressed. The linguists are fighting over ideas, not coconuts, and no rigamarole about the 98% chimpanzee (or is it 99% now?) is going to change that. The grammar is only a tool, and we should expect local variations, depending on need.
And then there is the question of whether to believe Everett on the evidence. Many colleagues clearly do not. Then, when he got charged with racism, it all turned really, really messy …
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See also: Evolution of language study savaged in Science: “suboptimal data, biased methodology, and unjustified assumptions.”