November 29, 2006

Fear and loathing on Massachusetts Avenue

It's just three days before an invited lecture by a linguist at MIT's Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) department, and suddenly (this was on Tuesday) someone from outside the MIT community sends a message to all the lists usually reserved for advertising talks to MIT Linguistics faculty, students, and visitors, and attempts to send it to the BCS department too (though that list turns out to be closed). But the message is not an announcement. It's a diatribe claiming that the invited lecturer is a liar who falsifies the cultural and linguistic evidence (even, curiously, when conflicting evidence is available in his own earlier published works). The sender is concerned that he and his friends might not get a chance to expose the lies and make all these allegations from the floor of the lecture room before being "cut off", so he is getting them in early by email. He ends his barrage of charges with a sarcastic mock advertisement for exploitation of native peoples for personal gain:

You, too, can enjoy the spotlight of mass media and closet exoticists! Just find a remote tribe and exploit them for your own fame by making claims nobody will bother to check!

What we have here is something I've never seen before: an attack ad against a linguist. What the hell is going on? Who is this hated linguist who is publicly libeled and branded as a self-promoting fabricator before he can even arrive at Logan Airport and take the taxi ride to MIT to give his talk?

The linguist at the sending end of this nasty piece of dirty campaigning will remain nameless here (and I repeat, he is not a member of MIT's excellent department). But I can name the linguist under attack: it's Daniel Everett, now at Illinois State University. He's a distinguished scholar in the field of Amazonian linguistics whom I first came to know when Desmond Derbyshire and I published, in Handbook of Amazonian Languages, Volume 1 (Mouton, 1986), a remarkable 200-page chapter of Everett's about the grammar of a fascinating and quite unusual language called Pirahã. Everett's recent work has been discussed in a number of magazine articles in the past few months (that's where the "spotlight of mass media" comes in), and several times here on Language Log (this post includes a reference list of our various mentions of him).

The work Everett will be talking about at MIT has to do with what he says are cultural factors that help to make the Pirahã and their language so unusual. He presents an account of his claims in print, in Current Anthropology 46(4), 2005, pp. 621-647, where you can also read critical comments by other linguists (pp. 635-641), plus Everett's reply to them (pp. 641-644). A very brief paraphrase of his claims follows (in my words, not his, but I'm doing my best simply to report his views).

According to Everett, the Pirahã place such a high cultural value on concreteness and immediacy that they have essentially no time for considerations of matters historical, artistic, or mathematical. They couldn't care less how the universe began or who was alive two hundred years ago; they don't engage in aesthetically motivated pictorial or dramatic art; and they don't do mathematics — they don't even count. This focus on the here and now, the real and concrete, is a positive value for them, not a lack or deficit, so it has great force, enough to account for the fact that their complete absence of interest in the hypothetical and the abstract has remained stable for some 200 years of contented and almost totally monolingual and monocultural life. Some of the features of their language are results of the influence of this culture: they don't have names for the colors of the rainbow, they don't have a system of names for numbers, and their language lacks certain grammatical features that most linguists think are universal — notably, there aren't any tenses that involve reference points distinct from the point of utterance (as in It had vanished, which says that the vanishing took place earlier than some reference point in the past, which itself is earlier than the moment of utterance), and there also isn't any recursive syntactic subordination (clauses [which are inside clauses [which are inside other clauses [which are inside other clauses]]], and so on). These, roughly, are the claims that Everett is prepared to defend in detail in his lecture.

So if Everett has it right, some languages are less like well-studied European languages than we thought any languages were. Fair enough, you might think. But what's all this about lying and self-promoting and exoticizing and misleading the gullible public? Why the hostility and abuse by advance email attack ad?

The attack message seemed to me to reveal a certain anxiety, even panic, which had spilled over into anger. I have ruminated on what is driving this, and I am led to consider three possible motivating forces, perhaps all simultaneously involved: (1) on the linguistics front, a certain defensiveness concerning cherished hypotheses about linguistic universals; (2) on the political and ideological side, a strong reaction against any perceived negative criticism of a Third World people's culture; and (3) with regard to religion, a prejudice against (particularly fundamentalist Protestant) Christianity. I am not going to try and adjudicate things here (though my revulsion against advance discrediting of visiting speakers by defamatory email should be clear). Let me just try to explain, as briefly and neutrally as I can, what I mean by (1)-(3), and where these forces seem to come from, and how they apply to this case. I'll leave it at that.

(1) Linguistic universals. The business about linguistic universals is perhaps the most reasonable of the causes for angst. For those many linguists who closely follow the thinking of Noam Chomsky, it is an article of their scientific creed that languages are really very similar under the skin. Superficially they look wildly different, and the feeling may not very rapidly recede even after some effort at trying to learn a new language, but if you can just attain a deep enough theoretical insight into how things work, you will be able to perceive that in profound ways all languages share the same organizing principles. It is not just that they constitute what philosophers call a natural kind, but that they are skeletally identical. Distracting lexical and morphological variety may blind us to that, but deep down it will be found (through difficult theoretical work) to be true. They regard it as extremely important for their whole branch of the field of linguistics that this should be so, and it threatens very deep beliefs of theirs when a linguist comes along saying something really shocking, like that he knows of a language with, say, no subordinate clauses of any sort.

Everyone should agree that remarkable claims should occasion remarkable amounts of debate. Such debates are what theoretical linguistics is all about. But wait: at MIT there are talks modifying or jettisoning hypothesized linguistic universals every week. Why has this particular talk attracted such a rare thing as a public message of abuse sent out in advance? I think we have to consider the other two points as well.

(2) Political sensibilities. The majority of academics today, especially in the social sciences (including linguistics), bend over backwards to express — and I have no doubt they actually feel — an enormously strong intuitive revulsion against saying anything that might be perceived as even remotely critical of another ethnic, racial, or cultural group or its cultural products — particularly criticism of a poor or Third World culture by people from a dominant Western culture. It is extremely unusual to find anthropologists who will come out and directly attack a culture they know well (it has happened, as in the case of Colin Turnbull's surprising condemnation of the Ik in his book The Mountain People, but it's very rare).

This sensibility is well-meant. People who are hostile to the rights and status of minorities talk about it scathingly using the term "political correctness" (PC), but I'm not interested in giving any coarse anti-PC tirade here; I just want to get a clear view of what's been going on.

The fact is that academics in fields like linguistics, anthropology, and comparative psychology have often spent years trying to be sensitive to the merits and capabilities of despised groups of people. They're not wrong to feel that way, and to some extent I hold views of the same sort myself. I have met ordinary people in Australia who don't know what they're talking about who would be happy to tell me how the Aborigines are vile, stupid, drunken, violent, worthless savages. This disgusts me; but I can just imagine how much more it must infuriate linguists who have devoted thousands of difficult hours studying the astoundingly wonderful languages of Australian Aboriginal tribes, and getting to know and like the people who speak them. Use of the dread phrase "primitive language", or even a hint of it, will often send a linguist over the edge with anger. I think some younger linguists may pick up this attitude of infuriatedness even before they have spent thousands of hours on fieldwork that has taught them just how complex little-studied languages of preliterate peoples can be. That may have happened here.

The malicious sender has picked an odd target in Everett, however. Everett has done his thousands of hours, and he is not saying anything denigratory about the Pirahã. He likes and admires them. He has found their language astonishing, and extremely complicated. Here's what he said about in his Current Anthropology paper:

I thank the Pirahã for their friendship and help for more than half of my life. Since 1977 the people have taught me about their language and way of understanding the world. ... No one should draw the conclusion from this paper that the Pirahã language is in any way "primitive." It has the most complex verbal morphology I am aware of and a strikingly complex prosodic system. The Pirahã are some of the brightest, pleasantest, most fun-loving people that I know. The absence of formal fiction, myths, etc., does not mean that they do not or cannot joke or lie, both of which they particularly enjoy doing at my expense, always good-naturedly. Questioning Pirahã's implications for the design features of human language is not at all equivalent to questioning their intelligence or the richness of their cultural experience and knowledge.

That's what Everett actually says. Yet still, I think, it is so hard for a sensitive linguist or social scientist to hear claims that might be construed as critical of a culture that the deep revulsion may spring up unbidden before the actual claims are even put out on the table, before the lecture is even given, before the taxi has even left the airport.

(3) Religion. And so we come to anti-Christian prejudice. Earlier in his life, Everett was a missionary linguist working with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the organization of fundamentalist Protestants founded by Kenneth Pike for the purpose of analyzing the remaining undescribed indigenous languages of the world and translating the Bible into each of them. Not everyone knows that Everett left SIL many years ago, and now does not believe Christian doctrines or practice a religious faith. Still, the SIL's work goes on, and it did provide Everett's original motivation to go to Brazil, back in the 1970s, and commence working on the Pirahã language.

In that context, consider these three propositions, which I think are true. (a) There is a tendency for more people to be atheists in academia than in the rest of the population (it doesn't matter why). (b) There is a tendency for social scientists to believe (with some justification, of course) that missionaries over the centuries have done great harm to indigenous people around the world, particularly in earlier centuries. (c) Christian fundamentalists have been doing their own cause great harm among intellectuals by repeatedly attempting crazy things like taking over school boards and pushing creationist or cryptocreationist ideas illicitly into science classes. If you put (a), (b), and (c) together, you have some basis for a certain amount of suspicion toward anyone who is thought to be an active, practising, Protestant-fundamentalist missionary operating or appearing within the academic sphere.

I say you have a basis for some suspicion; I don't say you have an excuse for being prejudiced. I personally think prejudice against Christians is as unedifying and immoral as prejudice against Jews. Suppose (contrary to fact) that Everett were still a missionary: suppose he really did still think that God had instructed him to ensure that the Pirahã can read the Gospel according to St Mark in their native tongue. Would this be grounds for a prejudice so deep that it would insist that everything he did was evil and twisted, and everything he said about the language was some devious lie? I've worked with linguists who are practising Christians. I don't share their religious beliefs, but they seem to be perfectly honest. I don't know why they would lie about something as banal as subordinate clauses (as opposed to the origin of the universe or the issue of whether we have immortal souls). Where's the gain for God in telling lies about tensed complements?

I think that if you now consider the effects of the linguistic, political, and religious points working together, you might be able to put together the rudiments of a sort of psychiatric explanation of the message sender's outburst of anxiety and rage — though not a justification for it.

Anyway, whether that's right or not, I do know this: the lucky people who live in the Boston area (I regret that I now do not) have a chance to hear Everett in person on Friday, because despite the hate campaign he still plans to get in that taxi at Logan Airport and take it to MIT's Building 46. His lecture is called "Culture and Grammar in Pirahã", and it's on Friday, December 1, from noon to 1:30 p.m., in room 46-3310 at MIT (that is, Room 3310 of building 46; MIT people do have a system of number names, and they use them to name buildings). Language Log readers in New England who get there early enough to find a seat can check out what Everett actually says, rather than what his enemies say he says, and then make up their own minds.

[Update: Dan Everett's talk did place as scheduled on December 1; it was not boycotted by the linguists in the area; about 125 people showed up, in fact; and a good, spirited discussion followed in the question period. You can actually listen to it, and look at the handout, thanks to Ted Gibson's lab: handout in PDF form here, and audio for Windows Media Player here.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 29, 2006 09:04 PM