Adventures in the jungle of language
Is it true that you wouldn’t be where you are without ’enry ’iggins in My Fair Lady?
Seeing My Fair Lady when I was a 13-year-old in junior high school, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, was a hugely influential experience. It isn’t the only reason I went into linguistics, but it interested me and worked subliminally, I believe, for years.
In high school, in San Diego County, California, I met a family of missionaries who translated the Bible for an Indian tribe in the Amazon. As an LCD-taking hippy and blues guitarist, I was looking for something radically different to do with my life. Becoming religious and taking off to the jungles sounded like just the kind of thing that would make me happy. In between that decision, when I was 17, and actual arrival in the Amazon, I had five years of undergraduate training, including three years of Bible study at the very conservative Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and one year of graduate work in structuralist linguistics (my linguistics professor was Kenneth Pike, a famous pioneer of US structuralism). I liked linguistics more and more. But it took a rather catastrophic event to push me more deeply into linguistics. As I arrived in Brazil in 1977 with my family, to begin our Bible translation with the SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), the Brazilian government decided that it didn’t want any more SIL missionaries to work in tribal areas. So we were on a mission with no place to go. SIL suggested that I pursue my linguistics studies in graduate school in Brazil – partly to learn more linguistics, partly to gain authorisation to go to the Pirahã people (where we had been assigned) as a student at a Brazilian university.
I was accepted by what was then Brazil’s premier research university, UNICAMP, in the state of Sao Paulo. As I took my first syntax class from Professor Mario Perini, I learned about Chomsky for the first time. It was though I underwent a second religious conversion. Chomsky seemed to begin where all the other linguistics I had studied ended. It was challenging, exciting and envigorating. I was hooked. I wanted to understand the deep and surface structures of languages and the universal grammar that was the foundation for it all. I wanted to contribute to science. This became a stronger pull than missionary work in some ways.
You’ve spent over 30 years living with and studying the Pirahã, in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Why do you think they are so important for psychology?
They are important for psychology for what they tell us about the relationship between cultural values and cognitive skills and for the light their language and culture have to shed on the notion of what is innate versus what is learned in human cognition. The absence of recursion, number words, counting, and colour terms are just a few of the interesting facts in need of an explanation. The explanation I have offered is that there is a much stronger symbiosis between language and culture than many modern linguists and psychologists might have imagined.
What do you think the Pirahã tell us about the architecture of the mind?
I think that they tell us that it is more plastic and less modular than, say, Chomsky or Fodor would have us believe. There are general properties, along the lines, say, proposed by psychologists such as Michael Tomasello and Brian MacWhinney, and language ‘emerges’ from the interaction of these properties, cultural constraints and general constraints on the nature of communication. I take up a lot of this in my newly launched book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, and in my book in progress Cognitive Fire: Language as a Cultural Tool.
What leads you to say that the Pirahã live in the ‘here and now’? Isn’t it part of the human psyche to have an origin myth, to think of their own autobiographical history and the future lives of their children?
The short answer is that, no, apparently it is not part of the human psyche. The longer answer comes from both positive (concepts that are lexicalised in Pirahã) and negative (things that are lacking) aspects of Pirahã language and culture.
I discuss these at length in my book. But Pirahãs have no creation myths, no stories about heaven, hell or similar concepts beyond current experience. This discovery alone is very important. As an anthropologist, I distinguish between ‘myth’ and ‘folklore’. Myth is found in stories that are understood as true but that are used to bind a people together, to give them a tool for extracting meaning from the world around them. Folklore is similar, but it is known to be fictional by those telling and hearing the stories. At least that is one accepted distinction. In this sense, Pirahãs have myths, stories that anyone can tell about something that they actually did or saw or were told by someone who did it or saw it, and these myths lay out values and meet the general cultural need of myth. But they are true to the Pirahãs. The Pirahãs have no folklore, no fictional stories and no stories that range beyond living human testimony, e.g. Creation. I have not always stated this distinction clearly in my writings.
If the Pirahã can still put into words any thought they can entertain, is recursion really that important? Is it important to psychologists or only of importance to a particular linguistic theory (i.e. Chomsky’s)?
What is important to psychologists or anyone else is exactly that – yes, the Pirahãs can put into words (probably) any thought they can entertain. But this is important because it means that human creativity lies in human thought, not in human language. Recursion and other concepts are prior to grammar. Grammar turns out in fact not to even be that important, especially if I am right that Pirahã – and other languages – lack evidence of any phrase structure whatsoever. This is what is hugely problematic for Chomsky’s theory. In fact, what I am saying is complementary to what Michael Devitt says in his recent book Ignorance of Language, namely, that language isn’t that significant for psychology after all and that it reflects the thoughts which precede it epistemologically.
Steven Pinker has implied you are guilty of ‘Eurocentric condescension’. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel like Steve doesn’t read all that carefully before he pontificates. There is nothing like condescension in anything I have written. He certainly hasn’t read Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. In fact, in earlier quotes Pinker supported what I am saying about recursion. But when he looked at my article in Current Anthropology more carefully, he realised that I wasn’t just criticising Chomsky, but the very idea of a language instinct. So rather than reply in any detail to anything I have written, he has simply tried to paint me as somehow antiscientific. Shame on him.
Does the fact that no other non-Pirahã can speak or understand the language make it impossible to verify your claims?
Not at all. The new paper that Mike Frank, myself, Evelina Fedorenko and Ted Gibson (my co-authors are all from Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT) have published in Cognition was based on work that Frank and Gibson led. And our experiments were all videotaped and are on file in Ted’s lab at MIT. It is hard to verify my claims because you have to (i) design experiments that work cross-linguistically; (ii) get funding; (iii) go to Brazil; (iv) get Brazilian authorisation;(v) work with me or learn to speak Pirahã. But it is not impossible. And there are other studies on the way, including testing for recursion.
You have claimed that the Pirahãs are monolingual, yet there are reports of them using Portuguese and marrying outside the group. Could you speculate what role this contact could have played in the current linguistic and cultural situation of the group?
The Pirahãs use Portuguese like I use French. They know several phrases and can do the equivalent of asking where the nearest bathroom is. But they do not speak Portuguese with any fluency at all and one can certainly not do linguistics or anthropology with the Pirahãs and expect them to translate anything beyond the simplest vocabulary. I used the term ‘intermarriage’ for a concept that is not an ‘off-the-shelf’ term in anthropology – having sex for the purpose of offspring (and fun!) with outsiders who come in in boats, with no language in common and no co-habitation. ‘Mating’ might be more accurate but that sounds inappropriate applied to humans, whether Pirahãs, researchers, or college undergrads on a Saturday night.
How special is Pirahã in the context of the 6000-odd languages currently spoken in the world? Are these other languages more like Pirahã or more like English? What are the dangers of building theories of language and cognition from English and other Indo-European languages?
Jeffrey Heath of the University of Michigan wrote a grammar of the Australian language, Nunggubuyu, several years ago and as I was talking to him recently and re-reading it, it also seems to lack recursion. In fact, I believe that there are several languages already known that language recursion. I doubt if Pirahã will be all that special in the long-term, but we have used the wrong categories and theories in describing these other languages. When descriptions of languages ‘fit’ our existing theories, everyone is happy to count them as evidence without demanding rigorous retesting, etc. So we get a lot of ‘false positives’. Much of the so-called support for Chomskyan theory is found in grammars that were written in his framework, without follow-up testing,a rather circular kind of research.
It is always dangerous to build theories on one kind of data alone, whether data from the same linguistic family or data from one kind of psychological phenomenon. It gives us a self-inflicted myopia.
You have claimed that the Pirahã have no linguistic method whatsoever for expressing exact quantity, not even ‘one’. What happened when you tried to teach them to count?
My claims in this regard are substantiated in the new paper I mentioned above in Cognition. When I tried to teach them, young children learned the Portuguese numbers from 1 to 10 without difficulty, but adults never did. As children began to pass up the adults in their classroom performance, they were sent away on fishing trips. Ultimately, the people came to me to say that this wasn’t for them. Part of the problem was that to teach them, I needed to correct their errors. But they don’t like foreigners telling them what to do.
You seem to have turned your back on father-figures your whole life: converting to Christianity against your father’s wishes, then turning your back on our father in heaven, then on your first linguist mentor, then on Chomsky. Should we read any significance into that?
I don’t know. The definition of learning that I like is ‘changing behaviour as a result of exposure to new information’. So think of me as someone who puts my rationality above my traditions. That is
a more favourable light. But I am not in life to find things to be loyal to. I am in life to explore until the very end. And I will change my mind whenever I see fit.
You haven’t spent as much time in the jungle recently. What do you miss most?
The evenings around the fire, drinking coffee, and telling jokes. These are wonderful people and they have enriched my entire life.
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