March 10, 2005

Cultural Constraints on Grammar

Dan Everett wrote to say that his paper "Cultural Constraints on Grammar" will be published in Current Anthropology as a main article, for which the journal will solicit 15 commentaries.

Here's the abstract:

The Pirahã language challenges simplistic application of Hockett's (1960) nearly universally-accepted 'design features of human language', by showing that some of these design features (interchangeability, displacement, and productivity) may be culturally constrained. In particular Pirahã culture constrains communication to non-abstract subjects which fall within the immediate experience of interlocutors. This constraint explains several very surprising features of Pirahã grammar and culture: (i) the absence of creation myths and fiction; (ii) the simplest kinship system yet documented; (iii) the absence of numbers of any kind or a concept of counting; (iv) the absence of color terms; (v) the absence of embedding in the grammar; (vi) the absence of 'relative tenses'; (vii) the borrowing of its entire pronoun inventory from Tupi; (vi) the fact that the Pirahã are monolingual after more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and the Tupi-Guarani-speaking Kawahiv; (vii) the absence of any individual or collective memory of more than two generations past; (viii) the absence of drawing or other art and one of the simplest material cultures yet documented; (ix) the absence of any terms for quantification, e.g. 'all', 'each', 'every', 'most', 'some', etc.

It's worth underlining that Dan sees the situation in terms of "cultural constraints on grammar". Some people see the question as whether language constrains (individual) thought, with culture emerging as a kind of amalgam of the psychology of individuals. Dan takes a different perspective:

Before beginning in earnest, I should say something about my distinction between 'culture' and 'language'. To linguists this is a natural distinction. To anthropologists it is not. My own view of the relationship is that the anthropological perspective is the more useful. But that is exactly what this paper purports to show. Therefore, although I begin with what will strike most anthropologists as a strange division between the form of communication (language) and the ways of meaning (culture) from which it emerges, the conclusion of the paper is that the division is not in fact a very useful one and that Sapir, Boas, and the anthropological tradition generally has this right. In this sense, this paper may be taken as an argument that anthropology and linguistics are perhaps more closely aligned than, say, psychology and linguistics, as most modern linguists (whether 'functional' or 'formal') suppose.

Thus Dan is separating Whorf (at least as he is generally understood) from Sapir, and aligning himself with Sapir:

I also argue against a simple Whorfian view, i.e. against the idea that linguistic relativity or determinism alone can account for the facts under consideration. In fact, I also argue that the unidirectionality inherent in linguistic relativity may offer an insufficient tool for language-cognition connections more generally, for failing to offer a more fundamental role for culture in shaping language.

Dan's article is an important one, and if you're interested enough in language to be perusing this blog, you should read it.

Exercise for the reader: if Dan's analysis of Pirahã is correct, what are the implications for studying languages like English? Turning it around, what are the implications for these ideas of what we know about languages like English and the cultures they're embedded in?


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 10, 2005 07:04 AM