This important article adds (listen) a new element to the evolution of language and introduces also a very emperical aspect to the evolution of religion.
This latter was also touched upon in an earlier article on another Amazonian tribe, the Korubo.
Sunday, April 8, 2007 Weekend Edition National public radio
Tribe Helps Linguist Argue with Prevailing Theory
Dan Everett has spent 30 years studying the language of a small Amazonian tribe, the Piraha. His findings are challenging long-held linguistic theories and stirring a sometimes-bitter debate.
ROBERT POLLIE: Dan Everett vividly recalls a day in 1977 when he arrived at the village deep in the Brazilian rainforest.
Professor DANIEL EVERETT (Linguistics, University of Manchester): I remember I was sick, I felt horrible - it was extremely hot – surrounded by these people making noises that I knew was a language, but it just couldn’t make any sense to me at
POLLIE: Those noises were Piraha, spoken by a tiny tribe in the Central Amazon and virtually unknown to outsiders. Everett couldn’t speak a lick of it. He was a 26-year-old Christian missionary then, eager to bring the word of God to the Pirahas.
But first, he’d have to learn their words.
POLLIE: Everett had a knack for languages, and after more visits over the next few years, he was conversing with ease. But his proselytizing was going nowhere. When it came to the Gospel, the Piraha had nothing but questions.
POLLIE: The Piraha, Everett says, are the ultimate empiricists, demanding evidence for every claim. And under their cross-examination, Everett began questioning his own religious beliefs. In the end, it was the Indians who converted the
Professor GEOFF PULLUM (Linguistics, University of California Santa Cruz): And Dan Everett produced a 210-page chapter for that first volume of the handbook that was really spectacular. It was an impressive piece of work and about a very different
and interesting language.
POLLIE: Interesting indeed. Piraha is unrelated to any known living language. It has only a small number of consonants and vowels but a rich repertoire of tones and stresses that give it a lilting singsong quality. In fact, it’s often crooned,
whistled and even hummed.
Mr. EVERETT: Where all the tones and the syllables are represented in the whistle’s pitch. Or I can hum it.
POLLIE: Here, two Piraha boys use song speech to describe an animal they saw on a jungle path.
POLLIE: But it’s what Everett says Piraha lacks that’s really raised scientists’ eyebrows.
POLLIE: Now, it’s surprising enough that people could live without numbers, counting, and color words. But it’s that last item, recursion, that’s the real bombshell.
Professor DAVID PESETSKY (Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Some people have suggested that recursion is the most fundamental principle of any language. And it’s what gives us an unlimited set of things we can say, like given
that the number of words we know is always bounded.
POLLIE: In other words, it’s recursion that gives human language its infinite range of expression. That idea has been championed by linguistics heavyweight Noam Chomsky and his colleagues, who’ve proposed that recursion is the one essential
ingredient separating human language from animal communication.
Mr. EVERETT: I realized that if I said what I thought - which was that the culture was influencing the grammar - that most linguists were going to think that I was crazy.
POLLIE: Everett finally published his hypothesis in 2005, challenging ideas that have dominated linguistics for the last four decades. And the debate has raged ever since.
POLLIE: Ted Gibson is a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at MIT.
Prof. GIBSON: But, you know, his claims are interesting. You know, whether or not they’re true, they’re interesting.
POLLIE: Gibson recently took his own research team to the Amazon to study the Piraha for themselves. So far, he hasn’t found anything to contradict Everett’s claims, but he says more study is needed before anyone can say for sure whether Dan
Everett’s right or not.
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