Saturday, March 17, 2012

The heated debate about a language instinct

native speakers of Pirahã

Amazon plain, I have no words for left or right, use the same word for blue and green, and their definitions of red, white and black are be comparisons, rather than specific words.

These people once isolated, a small group, they have a system of numbers, their sentences can not adapt to subordinate clauses or other forms of repetition (more sentences), and are not impressed with the Gospel of St. Mark in Pirahã, among other things because it is a story made up by someone I do not know, someone who has never heard of, at a time and a place that does not make sense for them. The Pirahã tend to limit their speeches to the things we know, and verbal forms may be the suffix to distinguish between rumor, inference and observation. They do not have perfect timing.

other hand, can also sing, hum, whistle and shout information to each other. So we have four other forms of speech and vocabulary specific to their environment and everything that interests them. If there is an underlying deep structure of the 7000 human language, a universal grammar or a language acquisition device or language instinct, and wired in the human brain at birth - Pirahã appears to be an exception

For Daniel Everett - linguist, anthropologist and once an evangelist missionary in the Amazon - the case is settled an old argument about the nature of language. The language of the Pirahã appears to be an exceptional tool unique cultural - that their knowledge of plant toxins and their ability to fish with a bow and arrow - to suit your particular circumstances. There is a sharp instrument of human cognitive toolbox: we have a big brain, are social animals, we work, we have an agreement on the fate of the lungs, larynx, pharynx, palate, tongue, teeth and lips. We can talk, so that the language has evolved, like our brain and bipedal locomotion evolved.


Everett in the formula, is the sum of culture more cognitive, more communication. Not need a language instinct to establish a 1903 years-about a sudden storm. The environmental culture of the child requires on the order of subject, verb and object, the power of words and phrases (like "nineteen to the dozen"), and the precise choice of phonemes.

This statement allegedly abused the hell out of other linguists, including Noam Chomsky, one of the high priests of the discipline, and the founder of the belief in that, for short, is called a universal grammar. It also presents a challenge to the arguments of the psychologist Steven Pinker, author of

The Language Instinct , a bestseller of 1994. The notion of language as an innate talent of the man received a huge boost this year with the identification of a British family, some of which, through three generations, were completely normal, while for others had a very specific problem disconcerting to the rules of the language. This has been interpreted as evidence of a "grammar gene."

The landscape has changed since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. The impressive package of human complexity has proven to be issued by close to 23,000 genes, far more than the fruit fly, no doubt, but much less than the corn plant. Anyway so we can enjoy the absurd loquacity of Mr. Micawber, to condemn the arrogance of the players and develop scenarios of a Greek debt default, all within a short bus ride, will not be a simple turn of a screw in genetic greater than the normal primate brain.

However, this is not an argument in the rest of us lucky to judge who is right. Everett is the master west Pirahã: what we know about language is what we say, and what it tells us is so strange that some linguists have even asked if he could be a victim of Borges suffered a joke (that n 't This is the first time an isolated community with a sense of humor, serious progress has been visiting an anthropologist).

But beyond that there is another difficulty: the arguments about what the shape and capacity of language tells us they are very difficult to follow. Recursion is actually the thing, as Chomsky says, that makes the difference between social pragmatic communication of apes and humans infinitely ingenious language? Is this really an exception Pirahã? The number of pronouns in a language really are inversely correlated with the technological advancement of a culture? Without the words color actually provides an index of how language has progressed?

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