A Moment in the Sun for the Pirahã Language

The Pirahã language is spoken by only about seven hundred people, members of a tribe living deep in the Amazonian jungle. However, the language has long been the focus of an ongoing academic controversy. This year, the release of a new book by Dr. Daniel Everett, one of the few outsiders who can speak Pirahã, as well as a documentary about his work are set to bring the debate to a head and give this unusual, unknown language a moment in the sun.

What makes Pirahã so unique and controversial? If Dr. Everett is correct, the language lacks many standard features, like words for numbers. Most importantly, according to Everett the language lacks what’s known as “recursion,” the ability to embed clauses into other clauses. An example of recursion would be a sentence like “Mama said that grandma used to say that life was like a box of chocolates.”

As the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, in 2002 Noam Chomsky (whom you might call the reigning king of linguistics) co-wrote a paper that called recursion the “only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.”

The key question here is simple: how much does culture influence language? Everett believes that the Piraha lack this linguistic feature because they live so much in the present that they quite simply have no need of it. Their culture doesn’t require it. Chomsky, on the other hand, believes that all human languages have a Universal Grammar, a set of innate characteristics that are hard-wired into the human brain independently of culture. And if recursion is one of the innate key features of human language, and the Piraha don’t have recursion…well, either the recursion is there and Everett is missing it, or Chomsky’s 2002 assertion about recursion is incorrect.

And that means it’s time to get out the popcorn, because while linguistics is generally perceived to be a dry, academic field, there’s actually all sorts of drama going on behind the scenes. The Chronicle of Higher Education calls linguists “uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as do “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.””

As of right now, one study of the Piraha language from a research team at M.I.T has found “suggestive evidence that Pirahã may have sentences with recursive structures.” So, Everett may indeed be wrong. But if nothing else, this controversy (and the attempt to bring it to the masses via the documentary) should prompt a moment of appreciation for how unique and varied human languages are, as well as highlighting the importance of preserving the ones that are threatened.