Thursday, March 29, 2012

language the cultural tool?

Guardian | Native speakers of Pirahã, in the Amazon lowland jungle, have no words for left or right, they use the same term for blue and green, and their definitions of red, black and white turn out to be similes, rather than dedicated words.

These once-isolated people, a tiny group, have no system of numbers; their sentences cannot accommodate subordinate clauses or other forms of recursion (embedding phrases), and they are not impressed by the Gospel of St Mark in Pirahã, not least because it is a story composed by someone they do not know, about someone they have never heard of, in a time and place that has no meaning for them. The Pirahã people tend to confine their discourse to things they know about, and their verb forms can be suffixed to distinguish between hearsay, inference and observation. They have no perfect tense.

On the other hand, they can also sing, hum, yell and whistle information to one another. So they have four additional speech forms as well as a very precise vocabulary for their environment and everything in it that matters to them. If there is some deep structure that underpins all 7,000 human languages – a universal grammar or language acquisition device or language instinct, already hard-wired in the human brain at birth – Pirahã seems to be an exception.

For Daniel Everett – linguist, anthropologist and once an evangelist missionary in the Amazon – the case settles an old argument about the nature of language. The exceptional language of the Pirahã people seems to be a unique cultural tool – like their knowledge of plant toxins, and their ability to fish with a bow and arrow – adapted for their exceptional circumstances. It is just another finely honed instrument from the human cognitive toolbox: we have large brains, we are social animals, we co-operate, we have a lucky arrangement of lungs, larynx, pharynx, palate, tongue, teeth and lips. We can speak, and so language has evolved, just as our brains and bipedal locomotion have evolved.

Language, in the Everett formula, is the sum of cognition plus culture plus communication. There is no need for a language instinct to set a three-year-old suddenly talking nineteen to the dozen. The infant's ambient culture compels the order of subject, verb and object, the potency of individual words and phrases (such as "nineteen to the dozen"), and the precise choice of phonemes.

This claim has reportedly annoyed the hell out of other linguists, among them Noam Chomsky, one of the high priesthood of the discipline, and the founder of the belief in what, for shorthand, is called a universal grammar. It also presents a challenge to the arguments of the psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, a 1994 bestseller. The notion of language as an innate human talent received a colossal fillip that year with the identification of one British family, some of whose members, through three generations, were perfectly ordinary, while others had a very precise and puzzling problem with the rules of language. This was interpreted as evidence for a "grammar gene".

This, to be fair, was before the genome of even the simplest bacterial organism had been sequenced, during an era in which researchers were betting that humans inherited more than 100,000 genes, perhaps even a million. Among these might be a gene for schizophrenia, a gene for intelligence, for being good at the 100m sprint and for learning to manipulate sentences.

The picture has changed since the human genome project ended in 2003. The awesome bundle of human complexity turned out to be delivered by about 23,000 genes; many more than a fruit fly, certainly, but many fewer than the maize plant. Whatever it is that lets us relish the preposterous loquacity of Mr Micawber, condemn the hubris of footballers and compile scenarios for a Greek debt default, all on a brief bus ride, it won't be a simple genetic turn of the screw in a larger than usual primate brain.


Gee Chee Vision said...

The Piraha asked him about the complexion of Jesus. His response was a neutrality that wouldn't offend the
Piraha nor reject his Eurocentricity. Most likely he assumed that somehow
Jesus was white. Then again if you believe in a god-man why not believe he could perform a DNA secession from a lineage of dark complexions.

Until Everett exposes his immune system to the common Cole ( he'll never reach the 36th Chamber.

Everette has yet to dissect the pervasive and subtle symptoms of white supremacy that he failed to identify as the key "pollutant" in his Piraha relationship. Vijay Prashad speaks of our bureaucratic management of multiculturalism while ignoring white supremacy. The white supremacy that Dr. Sherman Jackson argues is about the normalization of whiteness as oppose to it being about the hatred of non-whites.

CNu said...

GCV - my fatigue with these tropes is terminal.

I am SOOOOOOO tired of muhphuggaz who think in terms of black and white, instead of IQ 150 vs IQ 250, or 3-D vs 4-D cognition - that I simply want to scream. 

Everett is a smart cat. He has enough game and enough data to piss of Chomsky.

I'm interested in the intersection of these data and these ideas.

Everything else is stoopid conversation in which I am utterly and completely disinterested.

Gee Chee Vision said...

Unfortunately the term white supremacy will almost always be abbreviated to issue of race alone. Give me a better, less racially  charged term and I will use it.

Everett is currently your only source for the Piraha language. As Radford points out "what we know about the language is what he (Everett) tells us."

At the risk of my point being rounded off to a polarized black & white position, imagine if say Everett or Chomsky were the only authority we had for interpreting the lyrics of rap music. We're talking about English speaking linguists interpreting English. I'm sure they will consider race, class, gender, generation, geographic locations etc but it will stand that they are the only source in which that data is interpreted & considered and at some point that information becomes a David Carradine rendition of Shaolin kung-fu.

This is not about George Jefferson slamming a door in a honky's face it's about the cultural influence, of merely one non-Piraha authority on the Piraha language, working it's way into the final analysis.

CNu said...

Try normotic illness