Chomsky and the Pirahã

I remember reading the New Yorker article about Dan Everett and Pirahã a few years ago, and now he has a book out. The Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe, apparently have a very peculiar language:

Dr. Everett, who had been publishing quietly on the Pirahã for two decades, announced in his 2005 paper that their language lacked recursion, along with color terms, number terms, and other common properties of language.

That’s interesting in it’s own right, but the big issue now is whether this undermines popular Chomskian ideas about linguistics.

To Dr. Everett, Pirahã was a clear case of culture shaping grammar—an impossibility according to the theory of universal grammar.

I often get the sense when reading this kind of thing that the importance of exceptional cases is being overblown. This isn’t mathematics. There’s nothing wrong with saying “human beings have two legs” just because some people get amputations or have unfortunate genetic defects. Why couldn’t there be a universal grammar, and a few obscure tribes than have managed to cast it off?

But I don’t know anything about linguistics.

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Now: will this post brings in as much traffic as Jenna Talackova in a bikini?


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