Culture, Not Biology, Shapes Language


There's no language gene.


There's no innate language organ or module in the human brain dedicated to the production of grammatical language.


There are no meaningful human universals when it comes to how people construct sentences to communicate with each other. Across the languages of the world (estimated to number 6,000-8,000), nouns, verbs, and objects are arranged in sentences in different ways as people express their thoughts. The powerful force behind this variability is culture.


So goes the argument in Language: The Cultural Tool, the new book I'm reading by Daniel Everett. Next week, I'll have more to say about the book itself; this week, I want to explore how Everett's years of living among the Pirahã Indians of Amazonian Brazil helped shape his conclusions — and why those conclusions matter.


The Pirahã are hunter-gatherers who live along the Maici River in Brazil's Amazon region. They fish, gather manioc and hunt in the forest. As is true with any human society, Pirahã communities are socially complex.


Everett first showed up among the Pirahãs as a missionary associated with the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL), with the goal of converting the natives to Christianity by translating the Bible into the local language. He left many years later as an atheist, knowing that the Pirahãs "were not in the market for a new worldview."


In between, Everett found that the Pirahãs have no words for "please," "thank you," "you're welcome" or "I'm sorry." They have no color words, but instead deploy phrases such as "it is temporarily being immature" for green. They have a limited kinship term system, one that does not distinguish between parent and grandparent or brother and sister. And their sentences lack recursion. This means there are no embedded clauses, as in the English sentence "Bring me the fish that Mary caught."


In his previous book Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, Everett explained that the Pirahã culture drives the Pirahã linguistic system. For example, the language lacks recursion because of what he calls the principle of immediate experience. The Pirahãs don't discuss events that are not experienced by the speaker or by someone alive during the speaker's lifetime. (They do believe in spirits, but to them, the spirits are real and thus directly experienced.) [continue]

Tags: Brazil, Chomsky, Daniel Everett, anthopology, biology, culture, language, linguistics.

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