Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Have you met this man?

Trust the guy with thirty letters in his name to dig out the most interesting material on anthropology/history/culture. His latest post points to this article in the New Yorker, about Dan Everett, a linguistics professor at Illinois State University.

Everett is well known for his study of the language of the Pirahã, a tribe in Brazil, but better known for his theory that questions the universality of the phenomenon of 'recursion' in language (a theory associated with Noam Chomsky). He postulated, on basis of the tribe's culture and language that (1) the lack of complex thought in the Pirahã mind "extends its tentacles" to language, and (2) thus, causes the Pirahã language to lack recursive elements (therefore denying the Chomsky hypothesis).

Whether true or false, it makes for some fascinating reading. All eyes:

(Everett) hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths.

Everett pointed to the word word 'xibipío' as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but 'xibipío'—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’

..the Pirahã’s unswerving dedication to empirical reality explained their resistance to Christianity, since the Pirahã had always reacted to stories about Christ by asking, “Have you met this man?”

I wish more people were as smart.


On the subject of recursion, I seem to have a propensity for encountering recursive situations in my dreams. For example, opening a closet door to find another closet inside, and such. Talk of recursion also leads me to think of the associated phenomenon of fractals, the existence of which in cauliflower I discovered whilst dismantling one for dinner, thanks in no small measure to my cooking companion JD.


Google has a self-serving joke on recursion. Search for "recursion" and see.


Now on the subject of universal grammer: In Zhongwen (Mandarin), the one aspect that intrigues me more than the language itself is the similarity in syntax with other languages. While the similarity of the basic sentence structure with English (i.e., Subject > Verb > Object) is better known, the similarity with more obscure sentence structures in Indian languages is what is more interesting. For instance, the statement "他 什么 也 不 喝" ("He doesn't drink anything" ) has no literal parallel in English - the literal translation "He what also not drinks" makes no sense. However, when translated literally, word for word, to Hindi - "वह कुछ भी नहीं पीता", it makes perfect sense! Same with Gujarati - "એ કઈ પણ નથી પીતો" , Mewadi - "वो कई भी नी पीतो ", and undoubtedly a host of other languages. Chomsky would agree.

Update: Another linguistically fascinating phenomenon is what I call "hitch-hiking" - applying convention from your native language to a foreign one. For instance, as a speaker of Indian-English I often use the statement "Where do I have the time?!" as an emphatic expression of the lack of time (or some other commodity). This way of speaking is, although not unheard of, not terribly popular with British- and American-English speakers; it is adopted directly from an expression common in Indian languages, e.g., "वेळ कुठे आहे?!" or "वक़्त कहाँ है?!". Needless to say, a similar sentence pattern does exist in Zhongwen, "我哪 有 时间!".

Which makes me speculate that a language pedagogy based on existing knowledge of one language (e..g., English) is rather sub-optimal for bi- or multi-linguists as it underutilizes the pre-existing comfort with language patterns and tools that may not exist in the language of instruction. As I write this, I recount spending a lot of time during my Zhongwen education "cheating"; i.e., trying to concoct ways to apply phonetics and syntax from the non-English languages I am familiar with to Zhongwen, often successfully. Theoretically, the more linguistic backgrounds you can leverage towards the learning of a new language, the easier it should be. Now I am thinking business: imagine a line of books "Zhongwen in 7 Days for Bengali Speakers", "...Bengali and English Speakers", "...Bengali, English and Oriya Speakers", and so on.

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