“Gone out of experience”

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã.

What makes this tribe special is that their language defies a major linguistic theory, championed by Noam Chomsky, that posits a “universal grammar” embedded in the human brain that explains the structural similarity between every language on Earth. In a nutshell, this theory claims that all languages are shaped by a unique biologically-based human ability to create recursive thought structures. What’s that? Well, basically, it is inserting one thought into another. Such as the combination of “A dog is barking” and “The dog has fleas” into “The dog which has fleas is barking.”

The Pirahã don’t do this. Indeed, it appears that they can’t. They simply do not think this way because, in essence, recursion is based on abstraction and the Pirahã do not deal with abstraction.

… 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.’”

This has set the linguistic world, much of which subscribes to the Chomskyan belief in an innate, biological basis for the structure of language, on its ear.

I’ve had a passing interest in linguistics since grad school and I bounce around the periphery of ongoing debate, but what really interested me about this piece is how much it reminded me of a comment my son made last year, which I wrote about:

Recently as we passed some strangers on the street he asked “What happens to people when you don’t see them anymore?” He was hovering around asking whether they ceased to exist, though he never actually said so. We explained that they kept on living their own lives and that we’d probably never see them again. This saddened him a bit, though only slightly less that it puzzled him. I think he’s only just realizing that the sum of human experience is a superset of his own.

That got me thinking about the “universal grammar” concept. Maybe abstraction is not biologically-based but learned. But it went further:

… he’s even more obsessed with names. He simply cannot understand how there can be things that do not have names. He constantly asks about how something can exist if it doesn’t have a name. I explain that there are thousands (millions?) of species of animals, mostly small critters, that we suspect exist but have not been discovered and so have not named. Not to mention undiscovered stars, comets, planets and new concepts, future fashion trends, and dance moves…. Like Adam naming stuff in Eden, the power to name is the power to make real for my boy.

So, there it is. One researcher in the Amazon jungle and one little boy in Chicago, both defying the reigning theory on the origin of language. Perhaps my son has Pirahã blood in his veins (though his genography says no).