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Thursday, May 03, 2007

adam smith and the Pirahã

Our last post was an accident. We were looking up a quote in Foucault to use to continue talking about our European savage thread, and found the Kugelmass post about the Scull review and remembered the controversy. We will be using Foucault again, because we are going to talk about – language!

Uh oh. That lost us most of our readership right there. The deal is this, however. Two weeks ago, there was an article, The Interpreter, by John Colapinto, about the language of a “hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã” in the New Yorker. It was fascinating stuff. The tribe is in the news because a Chomskian named Everett, a well respected linguist, has defected. The Chomskian El Dorado is to construct the universal structures of language, and lately the sweet spot has been the notion of recursion:

“… a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase
inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete
thoughts ("the man is walking down the street," "the man is wearing a
top hat") into a single sentence ("The man who is wearing a top hat is
walking down the street"). Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic
theorist, has recently revised his theory of universal grammar, arguing
that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible
because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.”

Everett claims that the Pirahã defy this universal law. His description – or rather, the description given in the article – is of a beautiful but bizarre tongue:

“Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense
with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle

And this is what he wrote in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã" that set off a minor uproar:

“The article described the extreme simplicity of the tribe's living conditions and culture. The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for "all," "each," "every," "most," or "few"--terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett's most
explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion…”

Because I was following a chain of associations having to do with Memmie – vide my posts – this reminded me strongly of Adam Smith. Smith wrote an essay on the origin of language which has a claim to fame in excess of its content, or so claimed Dugald Stewart in a memoir about Smith in which he said that Smith worked out his method of conjectural history in the essay. Let’s set that aside for another post (Ive just written about this is the preface to Silja Graupe's Basho of Economics, by the way) – what surprised me about the Pirahã is the similarity to Smith’s ideat that language arose from antonomasia – that is, the using of a particular name for a general.

“Two savages,2 who had never been taught to speak, but had been bred up remote from the societies of men, would naturally begin to form that language by which they would endeavour to make their mutual wants intelligible to each other, by uttering certain sounds, whenever they meant to denote certain objects. Those objects only which were most familiar to them, and which they had most frequent occasion to mention, would have particular names assigned to them. The particular cave whose covering sheltered them from the weather, the particular tree whose fruit relieved their hunger, the particular fountain whose water allayed their thirst, would first be denominated by the words cave, tree, fountain, or by whatever other appellations they might think proper, in that primitive jargon, to mark them. Afterwards, when the more enlarged experience of these savages had led them to observe, and their necessary occasions obliged them to make mention of other caves, and other trees, and other fountains, they would naturally bestow, upon each of those new objects, the same name, by which they had been accustomed to express the similar object they were first acquainted with. The new objects had none of them any name of its own, but each of them exactly resembled another object, which had such an appellation. It was impossible that those savages could behold the new objects, without recollecting the old ones; and the name of the old ones, to which the new bore so close a resemblance. When they had occasion, therefore, to mention, or to point out to each other, any of the new objects, they would naturally utter the name of the correspondent old one, of which the idea could not fail, at that instant, to present itself to their memory in the strongest and liveliest manner. And thus, those words, which were originally the proper names of individuals, would each of them insensibly become the common name of a multitude. A child that is just learning to speak, calls every person who comes to the house its papa or its mama; and thus bestows upon the whole species those names which it had been taught to apply to two individuals. I have known a clown, who did not know the proper name of the river which ran by his own door. It was athe river, he said, and he never heard any other name for it. His experience, it seems, had not led him to observe any other river. The general word rivera, therefore, was, it is evident, in his acceptance of it, a proper name, signifying an individual object. If this person had been carried to another river, would he not readily have called it a river?”


There are questions that occur to the reader right away. One, of course, is the assumption that the Pirahã are primitive. This is the same assumption that encompasses so much writing about the Amazon Indians, even though we know that many groups actually fled into the jungle with the arrival of the Spanish and adapted their culture to a new kind of living, even as the spaces in the jungle for human population apparently opened up as the first Amazonian civilizations that the Spanish met disappeared – prey, no doubt, to diseases that were sweeping over the continent. And even though we know they adopted new technologies as things changed - as, for instance, bananas, an import from Africa, colonized the jungle. However, the Pirahã, according to Colapinto, have a deeper history with the Amazon, having arrived there between ten thousand and forty thousand years ago.

The isolation, the depth of time, the language - all seem to be parts of a story we might have already heard, once upon a time. Well, we will take this up again in another post


Scruggs said...

Here's Language Log's set o' links on the Piraha, and a fascinating read they make.

roger said...

Mistah Scruggs, you are the phantom of the opera of the intertubes! In fact, rumor has it that you've actually been to the center of the net, and there met with an unspeakable adventure much like Holmes' under the Reichenbach Falls - your Moriarity being, of course, a certain shape shifting mother of all squirrels!

Someday, I will have to get the particulars of that case so that I can inform millions of interested readers.

Brian said...

I also thought that Azathoth was at the center of the intertubes!

"[O]utside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes."

(I love H.P. Lovecraft. I know that makes me a very sick and sad individual :) )

roger said...

Brian, you should read Infinite Thought, another Lovecraft fan. Myself, I still vote for the Horla as the world's greatest horror story.

But that is because I am a horror wimp.

Brian said...

Thanks, roger,

There is just something about Lovecraft. I can't explain it. I can *almost) understand why their is a sub-subculture that has grown up that believes fervently that the Lovecraftian Mythos is somehow "real." I certainly don't beleive in the Elves or the Lord of the rings rot,but Azathoth? Makes sense to me.

Rev. Dr. Inaire said...

My dear people! Cthulhu loathes you, amen. If you would all line up by blood type (Type O to the head of the line, please) we can get started.

figuredbass said...

horror, antonomasia...makes sense of me!