The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? : Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker:
Everett, who this past fall became the chairman of the Department of Languages, Literature, and Cultures at Illinois State University, has been publishing academic books and papers on the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) for more than twenty-five years. But 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. 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, 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.
Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, calls Everett’s paper “a bomb thrown into the party.” For months, it was the subject of passionate debate on social-science blogs and Listservs. Everett, once a devotee of Chomskyan linguistics, insists not only that Pirahã is a “severe counterexample” to the theory of universal grammar but also that it is not an isolated case. “I think one of the reasons that we haven’t found other groups like this,” Everett said, “is because we’ve been told, basically, that it’s not possible.” Some scholars were taken aback by Everett’s depiction of the Pirahã as a people of seemingly unparalleled linguistic and cultural primitivism. “I have to wonder whether he’s some Borgesian fantasist, or some Margaret Mead being stitched up by the locals,” one reader wrote in an e-mail to the editors of a popular linguistics blog.