April 09, 2007

Dan Everett and the Pirahã in the New Yorker

The April 16 edition of The New Yorker, on newstands now, has an excellent article by John Colapinto, "The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?" Here's how it starts:

One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering tributary of the Amazon. On the bank above us were some thirty people— short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.

(The article is not available on line, though a slide show is.) There are some further details on Pirahã sung, hummed and whistled speech in a previous Language Log post, "Pirahã channels" (5/21/2006). A set of links to other posts on Pirahã is here.

Dan's most important paper on this general topic is "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language", Current Anthropology, Volume 46, Number 4, August-October 2005.

There's an interesting response by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues,"Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment", ms, March 2007; and Dan has responded to the response: "Cultural Constraints on Grammar in PIRAHÃ: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007)".

Colapinto's article goes over the history of Dan's research, the process that led him to his current ideas, and the controversy that has ensued, including the exchange with Nevins et al. Since we often complain here about the poor quality of scientific journalism in general, and stories about language and linguistics in particular, I'm glad to say that this article is extremely well done. Colapinto makes the choice to avoid all details about the facts of Pirahã: a bare handful of Pirahã words and phrases are quoted in the piece, using Dan's orthography, but for none of them is even the simplest sort of morphosyntactic analysis given. Therefore, the discussion of issues like recursion is a fairly abstract one. But Colapinto probably had no real choice on this point, given the grammatical illiteracy of even the most intellectual classes today, and he manages all the same to bring the basic issues out clearly and (I think) fairly, while also telling a good story.

[There's also a segment from Sunday's NPR Weekend Edition here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 9, 2007 07:16 AM