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.

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Dan Everett is a former missionary turned linguist. He's currently a professor at Illinois State University, but he spent the last 30 years studying the unique language of the Piraha Indians in northwest Brazil.

Everett says the Piraha converted him from Christianity to a scientific worldview, and he says their language challenges some widely held ideas of human nature and linguistics. Independent producer Robert Pollie explains.

Unidentified Child: (Piraha spoken)

ROBERT POLLIE: Dan Everett vividly recalls a day in 1977 when he arrived at the village deep in the Brazilian rainforest.

Unidentified Woman: (Piraha spoken)

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 all.

(Soundbite of Piraha people conversing)

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.

Prof. EVERETT: When you(ph) start off, maybe pick up a stick, and so I would point to the stick and say to the Piraha, "stick." They would say back to me, Eeh(ph), and I figured that eeh must mean "stick."

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.

Prof. EVERETT: A guy died and he came back from the dead? That's amazing. We've never seen anything like that. So what did he tell you when he came back from the dead? Well, I didn't actually see him. I mean, the - and so then they said, well, why are you telling us about it? I mean, you didn't see it and you don't know anybody who saw it. And so they were - they lost interest in the story completely.

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 missionary.

In the meantime, Dan Everett had also discovered his true calling: linguistics. He went back to school, got a Ph.D., and he became the recognized authority on Piraha.

Geoff Pullum is professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. He co-edited a standard reference work on Amazonian languages, where Dan Everett's early descriptions of Piraha appeared.

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: I would say there's a jaguar there, (Piraha spoken). And that's the spoken language with consonants involved. I could whistle it.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Mr. EVERETT: Where all the tones and the syllables are represented in the whistle's pitch. Or I can hum it.

(Soundbite of humming)

POLLIE: Here, two Piraha boys use song speech to describe an animal they saw on a jungle path.

Unidentified Boy #1: (Piraha spoken)

Unidentified Boy #2: (Piraha spoken)

POLLIE: But it's what Everett says Piraha lacks that's really raised scientists' eyebrows.

Mr. EVERETT: It lacks number words. It lacks counting. It lacks color words. It lacks quantifier words. It lacks recursion.

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.

Recursion is a technical name for our ability to put one phrase inside another. For instance, you can take the phrase "that Jack built" and put it in the sentence, "This is the house that Jack built." So why is that important? David Pesetsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains.

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.

But Everett says this supposedly key feature is nowhere to be found in Piraha. The reason, he thinks, is the Piraha sensibility, their focus on immediate experience. That, Everett believes, may explain the lack of complex, indirect constructions in their language. If true, it would be a case of culture shaping deeper aspects of grammar. And this, too, flies in the face of Chomskian theory.

Chomskyans believe the fundamental structure of language is hardwired in the brain, and is the same across all cultures. Everett's counterargument is such a radical departure he kept it to himself for years.

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.

MIT's David Pesetsky and two co-authors recently issued a scathing critique of Everett's claims. That paper and Everett's equally biting reply are lighting up the popular LingBuzz download site. Some other scientists aren't taking sides but say Everett's ideas deserve serious consideration.

Professor TED GIBSON (Cognitive Science and Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I actually think this is not unreasonable to make these very strong claims.

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.

But whatever the outcome, Everett is convinced the Piraha have a lot to teach us.

Unidentified Man #3: (Piraha spoken)

For NPR News, I'm Robert Pollie.

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