Robbie Hargett: Properties of language are not all universal

Mar. 03, 2013 @ 11:32 PM

Imagine the English language was only based on eight consonants and three vowels.

Imagine it had no words for individual numbers. No word for “one” or “two” or “nine,” just words that roughly referred to greater and lesser quantities.

Imagine, similarly, it had no fixed color terms. Dark colors were referred to as “dark,” and light colors were referred to as “light,” and a blue plate is not “blue,” but “looks like the sky.”

Imagine it had no general directional cues, so if you wanted to tell someone which way to turn, you would not say “right” or “left,” but instead would use absolute terms like “toward the grocery store” or “toward the river.”

Imagine the same word could have two opposite meanings depending on how you said the word. For instance, say the word “love” means “love” if you say it with one pitch, but “love” also means “hate” if you say it with a different pitch.

Imagine the English language had male and female versions; that is, imagine women used one fewer consonant than men used.

Imagine you could dispense with consonants and vowels entirely, and instead communicate perfectly by singing, humming or whistling.

Now imagine that the English language does not feature recursion, or embedding — the inserting of one phrase into a similar phrase, as when combining two clauses to make one sentence. (Example: “the dog is running” and “the dog is on a leash” could be combined into “The dog that is on a leash is running.”)

All of the above are properties of the native tongue of the Piraha people, an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Amazonas, Brazil. These features make their language extremely difficult to learn, and while all the properties are shocking, the last one may be the most significant.

In the last half-century, Noam Chomsky has been perhaps the most important player in the field of linguistics. He came up with the notion that all human languages have a “universal grammar,” meaning that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into our brains, and that there are certain properties of language that are common to all human communication, regardless of how diverse the languages may be.

It has been proven that our ability to learn language is at least partially genetic — without some hard-wiring, it would be impossible for a child to learn the complex structures of communication just by memorization. But some linguists, especially recently, have taken exception to some of the basic tenets of universal grammar.

Specifically, Chomsky asserted that recursion is one of the cornerstones of all languages, and, along with other linguists, he co-authored a paper that suggested recursion is really the only thing that separates human language from all other animal communication.

But linguist Daniel Everett, who has spent decades studying the Piraha people and their language, claims there is no evidence of recursion in the Piraha language. His reasoning for this lack of recursion, as well as the other strange properties of the Piraha language, comes from his idea that human language is actually much more influenced by culture and environment than Chomsky — who believed language is innate rather than learned — thought.

By that I mean the Piraha would not develop number-words if they had no need to count anything, and that’s precisely how Everett rationalizes it. He says that, being hunter-gatherers, the Piraha don’t really have anything to count and no reason to do so. They also don’t generalize about the future, nor possess a deep memory of the past, so they have no need for number-words or dates.

Theories for and against universal grammar are still being debated, but this is at least another extreme reminder that cultural variations make people very different from one society to the next, even if we do share an almost identical genetic code.

After all, Everett spent eight months trying to teach the Piraha people basic counting skills. He gave it up eventually. Almost a year of daily study, and not a single Piraha had learned to add one plus one.

— Robbie Hargett is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 218 or e-mail to rhargett@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @RobbieMtnPress.