1 of 2
1
New Yorker article
Posted: 11 April 2007 10:15 AM   [ Ignore ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  158
Joined  2007-02-14

There is a very interesting article in this week’s New Yorker magazine about how language shapes our perceptions of the world.  It has to do with a linguistic study of a unique Amazonian tribe.  This tribe has no language for abstract thought, no creation myths, no art, and no concept of numbers above three. 

The group appears to live entirely in the present moment—doesn’t store food for example. 

The group although discovered by Europeans in the 18th Century is very resistant to change and assimilation into the broader culture. 

The article also talks about the difficulty of the researcher to learn the language—it has different numbers of consonants for men and women, depends to a great deal on pitch and inflection, is unrelated to other known languages and had to be learned without a common language link as the native speakers have never learned Portugese—or any other language.

The language also appears to be an aberration that disproves Noam Chomsky’s theories of commonalities in language—although that last point is a controversial one.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 11 April 2007 11:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2334
Joined  2007-01-30

This is the Piraha tribe, I think the subject has come up here before. Unfortunately the New Yorker article seems to be subscription only but here’s a Spiegel article from last year on the same tribe: Living Without Numbers or Time. For obvious reasons the language of the Piraha holds much interest for linguists.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 11 April 2007 12:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3506
Joined  2007-01-29

Language Log on Piraha.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 11 April 2007 04:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Rank
Total Posts:  2
Joined  2007-04-11

There was a piece on NPR about it a couple of days ago; it had me searching for my Chomsky.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9458681&sc=emaf

Profile
 
 
Posted: 12 April 2007 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3506
Joined  2007-01-29

Jabal al-Lughat on Piraha.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 12 April 2007 04:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  362
Joined  2007-03-05

Language enabling (or in this case disabling) perceptions and descriptions of the world was the idea of ‘Newspeak’ in ‘1984’

Profile
 
 
Posted: 12 April 2007 05:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4750
Joined  2007-01-03

Hardly original to Newspeak and Orwell. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Haven’t read the New Yorker article about Piraha yet, so I don’t know how they treat the subject. But in general, the idea has been discredited, at least in any strong sense. Having the ability to easily express a concept in a language does help in memorization and recall, rapid categorization, and a few other mental functions, but it does not significantly improve, or in its absence impair, abstract or conceptual thought. Just because you don’t have words for numbers above three, doesn’t mean that you can’t conceive of higher numbers. If you don’t have such numbers and are asked to order sets of objects based on the number of members, then it may take you a bit longer than someone who does have a language with numbers, but you can still do it.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 12 April 2007 10:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  158
Joined  2007-02-14

Dave, you should read the article.  There are interesting anecdotes of researchers trying to measure whether members of the tribe understand abstract concepts (by measuring eye movements etc. anticipating a logical result of an abstract concept playing out in the real world) even though the language lacks words to express them—with remarkably limited success.

What appears to make the tribe so interesting to linguists is that it appears to support the hypothesis that you describe as “discredited”.  And the article is a pretty good account of how Noam Chomsky’s ideas have so dominated the field that they have marginalized any opposing views.  There is a quote by one academic that says that Chomsky has dug a hole that it will take linguists decades to climb out of.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 13 April 2007 05:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  155
Joined  2007-01-28

Chomsky’s rather dense academese has always escaped me, so I can’t comment on his views. However, I’m reminded of a Japanese woman’s comment that her mother always said “You have to know ten things in order to know one thing.” In other words (to me anyway) it suggests that knowledge is stuctural, like a building. There’s a foundation, wall framing, plaster, siding, adornments, etc. You can’t hang a picture without a wall. But you can learn or create a structure, perhaps to a limited extent, without language itself—just by observation. Language is often just shorthand for other knowledge, not knowledge itself.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 13 April 2007 06:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Avatar
RankRank
Total Posts:  32
Joined  2007-04-08

This group would stand as a refutation of not only Chomsky, but perhaps also Jung, with their apparent lack of any sort of creation myth or archetypal structure.  It would be fascinating to know just when and under what circumstances this group broke free from its root group, as the explanation might just lie there.  They likely arose from a small splinter group who simply forgot, or didn’t pass along, their cultural constructs.  I’ll have to question an anthropologist colleague on this one.

 Signature 

Fregt mikh bekheyrem!
~ Shmegege

Profile
 
 
Posted: 13 April 2007 06:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4750
Joined  2007-01-03

I just finished the article. I agree that it is a really good one, interesting, informative, and very balanced.

I do not, however, think that Piraha poses a serious challenge to the theory of Chomskyan universal grammar, at least not yet. It is, however, a very interesting anomaly that deserves more research.

More likely, the researchers that think it does pose a challenge to Chomsky and that it is evidence in support of Sapir-Whorf are simply wrong. Almost everything we know of Piraha comes from a single, husband-wife team of researchers, the Everetts. It seems to me that it is far more likely that the Everett is simply misunderstanding something about the Piraha and their culture and is admitting bias into the interpretation of his results. It’s also interesting that Everett has had one complete change of heart about Piraha. His early research indicated that it supported Chomsky’s ideas. Is this a case of a researcher changing his mind as he gathers more evidence? Or is it a case of first impressions being right? (Also, the preliminary results of Fitch’s--the researcher with the grammar tests on his computer--seem to indicate that Everett is wrong; caveat being that Fitch hasn’t published yet.)

We also can’t dismiss the possibility of a hoax. I doubt that Everett would deliberately falsify his results--he’s too well credentialed and respected for that to benefit him. But there is a long and sordid history of aboriginal people playing fast ones on anthropologists just for giggles. And Everett even admitted in the article that the Piraha will try to give results that please the researcher (a natural tendency).

But even if Everett’s observations are correct, this does not mean that universal grammar is under serious challenge. After all, out of the 6,000-odd known dialects, we have 5,999 dialects that are consistent with Chomsky and one that is not. This would appear to be a classic “exception that proves the rule.”

First, is there some physiological reason for the Piraha’s behavior? The article went to great lengths to emphasize that the Piraha did not have sub-normal intelligence, but that does not mean that there may not be some genetic factor that is inhibiting abstract thought. The article did not indicate that any physiological or genetic testing of the Piraha had been done.

Second, is there a developmental factor that we don’t understand. Perhaps, like language, the capacity for abstract thought develops at a certain stage of growth. Perhaps some cultural factor is inhibiting the development of abstract thought. In such a case, testing adults may very well show that they are not capable of abstraction. Some of Fitch’s tests were with teens. It would be interesting to see if results varied with age. (From the article, it did not seem likely that Fitch’s samples were large enough to extrapolate such results, though.)

Third, and perhaps most likely, the researchers could just be asking the wrong questions. Using the wrong kind of tests to elicit abstract thought from the Piraha. The article makes this point explicitly.

Finally, one does not have to disbelieve universal grammar to think that Chomsky may be inhibiting research through excessive orthodoxy or cult status. It is quite common for senior scientists who have long dominated a field to do so. For example, Lord Kelvin (a.k.a. William Thomson) went to his deathbed in 1907 denying that the earth was over 100 million years old, denying that radioactive decay existed, and stating that powered flight was impossible. He was enormously influential and through control of funding and tenure decisions probably set back the field of nuclear physics by some decades. Yet, from his early work he is known as one of the greats of physics, not some crank.

[Edited to remove stupid error regarding the verb “deny"]

[ Edited: 14 April 2007 06:38 AM by Dave Wilton ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 13 April 2007 07:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2839
Joined  2007-01-31

For example, Lord Kelvin (a.k.a. William Thomson) went to his deathbed in 1907 denying ... that powered flight was impossible.

Well, he was right about that one.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 14 April 2007 04:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3506
Joined  2007-01-29

we have 5,999 dialects that are consistent with Chomsky and one that is not. This would appear to be a classic “exception that proves the rule.”

Surely you’re not serious?  “The exception that proves the rule” is a popular misunderstanding; in science, if one counterexample is found to a purportedly universal rule, it disproves it.  Chomsky is notorious for proclaiming supposed universals that get shot down by linguists who (unlike Chomsky and his crew) actually study a wide range of languages.  (If you’re convinced a priori that all languages are the same, of course, you don’t have much incentive to study them.)

And it’s not merely a matter of Chomsky’s being a revered senior scientist; he began practising a hostile takeover of the field from the start, placing his acolytes in strategic positions and making sure only people who accepted his gospel got hired.  I went to Yale for grad work because it was one of the last holdouts against transformationalism, but even there students were required to pass a course in it (which most of us felt was akin to having to pass a course in angels dancing on pins).

It is not in the least surprising that another counterexample shows up to another of Chomsky’s pronunciamentos.  I’m just glad this one is getting so much publicity.  Maybe the statues of The Great Noam will finally be pulled down and the people will be free at last!

Profile
 
 
Posted: 14 April 2007 06:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4750
Joined  2007-01-03

The “exception that proves the rule” is typically misinterpreted. I did not mean it in the sense you suggest (and most people use it), but in the correct (I said “classic") sense of prove = test. The exception tests the rule. When a case is discovered that does not comport with accepted theory, one needs to find out why this is the case. Usually it is not because the theory is fundamentally wrong. Explanations can include:

-- The data on which the exception rests is wrong (Everett made a mistake)
-- A factor outside the scope of the theory is creating the exception (the Piraha’s can think abstractly, they simply choose not to for cultural reasons)
-- The theory is correct as far as it goes, but is incomplete (there is an aspect of cognitive development that we don’t yet understand and is not accounted for in the theory)
-- The theory is just wrong (Chomsky’s universal grammar is a complete crock)

This is why I said it was an interesting anomaly that deserved further study. The last possibility, that the theory is just plain wrong, is probably the least likely outcome of all this.

I’m not suggesting that the exception be ignored, just admitting the probability that with the count being 5,999 to 1 on this subject, it is the exception that is wrong, not the theory. If the exception does stand up to independent scrutiny, then we have to find the reason and adjust the theory accordingly.

And I agree that Chomsky’s dominance of linguistics is an unhealthy thing. That doesn’t mean his ideas are wrong though. They have to be put to the test just like any one else’s.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 14 April 2007 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  155
Joined  2007-01-28

Another two cents: who was that said the essence of any legitimate philosophy or science can be explained to the stranger sitting next to you on a bar stool in about five minutes or less, or else it is no legitimate philosophy or science. Example: explain E=mc(squared). Answer: Matter can be turned into energy, is even composed of energy. Or: what is DNA? Answer: It’s a molecular code contained in the cells of the body that determines your body’s design; you inherit half from your mother and half from your father.

Now, it took a few thousand years of science to come up with those nuggets, and in order to comprehend those statements you’d have to know there is such a thing as an atom, molecule, or cell. But what is more or less common knowledge today represents a vast, incomprehensible array of facts to previous generations of scientists.

So what’s the point? First, people like Chomsky, at a guess, are somewhat resistant to or fearful of having their ideas “reduced” to simple statements. (Why else is “reductive” such a loathesome accusation?) Just give me the facts, ma’am, and I’ll make up my own mind. The concept of a universal grammar should have a few basic tenets, accessible to ordinary understanding and provable by rigorous methods. Otherwise it’s just a hypothesis, fun to talk about and suitable for career-empire building.

My second point is that unlike the average modern civilized human being the Piraha person has an extremely limited “common knowledge” and has no need for more complexity in language than they already have. They don’t want to know about DNA or nuclear energy. So they’ve chosen, over the generations, to simplify. But all of us can do the same thing in a split second. Ever get really, really exhausted at work and start talking baby-talk to relieve the strain? “Me get tired .. go! You stay, finish up. Me take credit, you get fired.” (Hollywood savage-speak) Anyway, after reading Everett’s improbable account of scooping up all the weapons—because he already could understand enough Piraha to know they were going to kill him—and he hadn’t even met them yet—leaves me dubious about the whole story.

edit: one of the links above had a disussion about “sleave-arm” as a Piraha word for “hammock”, which I find pretty clever and quite normal. Anybody who has used a “brace” to drill a hole in wood might look up the origin of the word ... it’s a bracing experience.

[ Edited: 14 April 2007 09:50 AM by foolscap ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 14 April 2007 10:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3506
Joined  2007-01-29

I did not mean it in the sense you suggest (and most people use it), but in the correct (I said “classic") sense of prove = test.

Ah, sorry.  But one so rarely sees it used in that sense it doesn’t spring to mind… which is why it’s usually not a good idea to use popularized expressions in the classic sense unless the meaning is crystal clear ("begs the question,” I’m looking at you!).

the count being 5,999 to 1 on this subject

But where do you get that?  I’m quite certain Chomsky hasn’t examined every language on the planet, and I doubt you have either, much as I respect your diligence and care.  I’m reasonably sure there are counterexamples for just about everything Uncle Noam has ever claimed; this just happens to be one that’s gotten lots of publicity.  Assuming the Big C is correct until proven otherwise is not (IMHO) a productive approach.

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 2
1
 
‹‹ Nutter      Every Man Jack ››