Apparently it's still linguistics week here at the CogSciLibrarian corral. In catching up on my New Yorker reading, I came across a recent New Yorker article about the Brazilian hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN). John Colapinto accompanied linguist Dan Everett on a recent visit to learn more about the Pirahã's language, including its lack of words for color and numbers, as well as its lack of "recursion." (Recursion is the human ability to say not only "the librarian is reading a book," but also "the librarian who is wearing a tiara is reading a book")
According to Colapinto, Everett has been writing about the Pirahã for over 25 years, "[b]ut his work remained relatively obscure until early in 2005, when he posted on his Web site an article titled 'Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,' which was published that fall in the journal Cultural Anthropology." In the article, Everett notes that the Pirahã don't have words for quantification (all, each, most, few), and don't do recursion. The controversy stems from Noam Chomsky's recent revision to his theory of universal grammar, which posits that "recursion is the cornerstone of all languages."
Yipes! Right into the linguistics fray.
The article is a good introduction both into the language issues in play with the Pirahã, (which Brent Berlin, a cognitive anthropologist at the University of Georgia, believes "... may provide a snapshot of language at an earlier stage of syntactic development. ... 'The plausible scenarios ... suggest that early language looks something like the kind of thing that Pirahã looks like now.' ") -- and also a diversion into Peter Gordon's 2004 Science article "Numerical Cognition Without Words," in which he describes the Pirahã's understanding of numbers (very short version: one, two, many).
Colapinto neatly summarizes some of the arguments going on in linguistics right now about Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, including that Chomsky has not studied language development among many different peoples, and that Chomsky is not much interested in the evolution of human language. Everett's article and research may provide a window into the development of our language; at a minimum, it calls into question Chomsky's theory that recursion is essential in human language.
If you're interested in either language development or the politics of linguistics, this is a good read.
To Learn More
Colapinto, John, The Interpreter; Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? The New Yorker. 4/16/07, 120+. Full-text also available from LexisNexis, Academic Search Premier, and Academic OneFile @ your library.
Everett, Dan. "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã // Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language." (abstract; pdf) Current Anthropology, 46:4 (2005), pp 621+.
Gordon, Peter. Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia. Science, 06:5695 (2004) pp. 496 - 499. Full-text may be available @ your library.