The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

Pirahã meet the crooked heads… and don't care: Everett's book challenges the Universal Grammar theory

Posted on November 16, 2008 by

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive psychologist, referred to it as “a bomb thrown into the party”. The bomb? The discovery by Christian-missionary-cum-Linguistics-chair Daniel Everett of a group, the Pirahã, deep in the Amazon, whose language seems to eschew the grammatical use of “recursions”. What kind of party is that then, you ask? It’s a academio-linguistic one that’s been going on for about forty years now, celebrating the idea of Universal Grammar, which according to the Chomskyan theory, essentially allows language to occur.
But according to the Guardian, “it only takes one black swan to falsify the proposition that swans are by definition white.” That is, the fact that the Pirahã exist basically turns upside the idea that the grammar is actually universal.
As expounded upon in Everett’s brand new ethnographic travelogue, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, the Pirahã manage to find it pretty easy to party without any recursive clauses, the ability to quantify or conceive of numbers, or any observable influence by outsiders — whom they refer to as “crooked heads”.
This translates into a carpe diem sort of existence. The Pirahã are apparently quite uninterested in art or fiction, not to mention the maelstrom that their grammatical anomaly (or lack thereof) has generated. Everett terms it “immediacy of experience principle”, where a purview only encompassing what has been witnessed or experienced precludes any need for embedded sentences. (Try to say that in Pirahã, crooked head!)
(Via: The Guardian)