Articles, Blog

(AV17435) Challenging Chomsky

good evening everybody I’m Dan Douglas from the English
department and the applied linguistics program and the Linguistics program and
I’m here to welcome you all to the Quentin Johnson Memorial Lecture the
annual linguistics lecture started in 1978 thirty years ago some of us were
just toddlers when that started the newly organized linguistics program
committee decided to give the Linguistics program greater visibility
and instituted the lecture the first lecture was given by professor Frederick
Cassidy of the University of Wisconsin and a participant in a Dictionary of
American English project the Linguistics program committee named the series after
professor Quinton Johnson a respected teacher of English and linguistics
shortly after his death in 1986 at the age of 56 Quinton received his PhD in
English in 1967 from the University of Oregon his dissertation studied the
translation of the Aeneid into Scots by the medieval Scottish poet
Gavin Douglas interestingly enough Quinton taught at Iowa State from 1956
to 1958 and again from 1961 to 1986 his teaching responsibilities range from
technical writing to linguistics to Chaucer to freshman composition at
different moments in his career he chaired the technical writing program a
freshman English Program and the English graduate program although Chaucer was
his favorite subject Quentin had a long-standing interest in historical
linguistics and a study of American dialects together with other faculty
from English and world languages and cultures Quentin founded the
interdisciplinary linguistics program in 1978 his pioneering efforts paved the
way for what is currently the cross-disciplinary linguistics program
with over fifteen contributing faculty from
at least six different departments and currently enjoying 40 majors now hand
over to Barb who will introduce tonight’s speaker good evening I’m very
delighted tonight to do introduce our speaker for this year is Quinton Johnson
lecture doctor Dan Everett currently serves as chair of the department of
languages literature’s and cultures at Illinois State University and before he
went to that other ISU he taught at the University of Manchester in England
where he served as a research professor and chair of phonetics and phonology in
the Department of linguistics before working at the University of Manchester
dr. Evert taught at the University of Pittsburgh and at MIT dr. Everett is
here tonight to talk about his work with the Amazon basin
kirara people and their language dr. everett has lived in the jungle villages
for more than seven years of his life and has been contact conducting research
in these villages every year since 1977 dr. began his research with this
language when he traveled to Brazil to do missionary work part of the training
for this work involved enrolling in the Summer Institute of linguistics which
trains missionaries to learn languages quickly and according to Wikipedia which
I’m sure is never wrong people before him had failed in learning the language
and he was successful in having done so quite a feat in the fall of 1978
dr. had ever wrote enrolled at the State University of
Campinas and Brazil to continue his work on the study of this language and he
focused of course on the theories of Noam Chomsky and his PhD dissertation
dealt with a Chomsky analysis of the language so our presentation tonight is
very exciting because his work has been a bit controversial in the field of
linguistics though we are on the cutting edge of changes that may be happening
and how we think about language and I also wanted to alert you dr. Everett has
a new book out don’t sleep there are snakes life and language in the
Amazonian jungle it’s to be released November 11th so it’s coming up I would
pre-order your copy reviews have been very favorable might be hard to find in
bookstores once it’s released this book is not only a book about his research
but from what I read from previews a bit of an adventure story and a fascinating
memoir of a life that has been affected by exposure to such a unique culture so
adding to these reviews also wanted to mention that his book was selected by
the BBC book of the week club so in November I don’t know if any of you
shortwave radio or what but so hopefully would soon be repeated here in the
States his book will be read in Britain Monday through Friday for that week and
with an estimated audience of about 3 million listeners so it’s definitely
going to have wide exposure but tonight we have an opportunity to get a little
preview of some of this information that will be appearing in the book that will
soon to come out so please welcome after Dan Everett thanks it’s it’s
really great to be here it’s quite an honor
Peter Han would say something like well I saw high up ideas over I go yeah watch
it okay bye oh yeah okay so let’s speak Peter ha Peter has a pretty language I
like everyone here just threw that in that’s attack all the photos on the
presentation are are the work of New Yorker photographer Martin Schoeller
who’s a very good photographer I was telling someone that these photos might
look simple but for every photo there were lights all around that he flew in
with a plane load of equipment and and an assistant and I had to be in the
water for about an hour there so what this presentation is about primarily is
the nature of human language and one of the arguments that language is innately
specified in the genes in the human genome is the fact that it’s ubiquitous
it’s found with many similar characteristics across the 6500 there
are 6,500 mutually unintelligible languages in the world so across the
world we find that every human speaks a language these languages are moderately
close and levels of complexity according to some hypotheses their languages share
a number of similarities children learn language with an amazing degree of a
demonstrated ability in a short amount of time with with quite a level of
accuracy but I want to make the case that evidence from peat aha and evidence
from other languages suggest that language is really not something we need
to call innately specified as part of the genes but it is in fact more closely
akin to tools that we find ubiquitous in human
culture one such tool is fire every human culture has fire fire plays an
important role in human society and it there’s no need to propose a gene for
fires other things that seem to be almost universal are arrows and pizza
most cultures have arrows I was in the of the Xingu Park region with another
group called the Sioux Yahoo you may have seen them they have large plates in
their lower lips and they had this thing on the fire that was mani a bread round
with meat on top and I asked them what’s that and they said pizza they were they
speak Portuguese unlike the pita ha and they said that’s our pizza well pizza is
fairly ubiquitous although the pita ha don’t have it so what makes these things
ubiquitous and I want to claim that it’s because they fulfill a role as cultural
tools so there is a plug that’s on the left is the American cover and on the
right is the British cover and there’s but they don’t have they’ve gotten
publicity from the weirdest places this Italian style magazine actually had a
story about the pita ha Flair and it’s it’s been and it’s been in very unusual
magazines I’ve never been able to completely figure out why people are so
interested in some aspects of the story I don’t know why they they never showed
me the magazine except to say the interview means I don’t know if they had
a story on recursion in this magazine or not that the pita ha probably were as
large as 50,000 people in the 1700s today there are roughly 350 spread out
across the myci River so if you took out all the country boundaries of South
America they would be right in the middle of the Amazon rainforest it’s a
language unrelated to any other known language it doesn’t belong to any known
linguistic family there’s no other language that has words in common with
it or it just seems to be quite different nobody knows where it came
from but we know that given the rate that languages change we’re probably
talking about breaking off from any other
language as much as 3,000 years ago arriving in the pita ha is easier today
than it was when I first started now I can fly in and the pilot is my
son-in-law so what used to take me a week to get
into the village now takes an hour and a half from the nearest city on a pontoon
plane it takes time to figure out things in these languages this little boy is my
son who’s starting his second year as assistant professor of anthropology at
the University of Miami and I’ve been pondering these problems since he was a
year old so it’s been going actually I think he
was six months old when I started thinking about these issues so nothing
I’m going to tell you today is the result of some magical insight I had
after my first three weeks in the village I’ve worked on this language
since I was 26 and I’m not 26 now and actually I you know good I’m a lot older
than 26 anyway this I published this the
material that has attracted so much attention in 2005 this is a spirit it’s quite common in the evenings for
the pita how to claim that spirits are speaking to them from the jungle so you
hear these high falsetto voices and this is a pita ha
man who claims to be a spirit at the time and just a few more images of the
of the pita hot people this picture is of the oldest man in the village where I
spend most of my time his name is toy boy he’s probably 70 and still quite a
fisherman you can see the length of their arrows that’s a fishing arrow so
it doesn’t have feathers and it’s longer so it floats when you hit a fish and the
bow he’s he’s about 5 foot tall 5 feet 1 and the bow is probably 7 feet tall this
is pet bio she is a very funny person always laughing has two small boys and
her husband’s pictures in here I think that’s no that’s not her husband that’s
kaya paw and he’s just squirrely teenagers like teenagers are that’s one
thing that does seem to be Universal about the world is when they get to be a
certain age they run around and make noise and do practical jokes and make
fun of old people this is Kali and he’s been my friend
ever since 77 I’ve known him most of my life what did the Peterhouse have to
teach us well again one hears of language as an eighth or as instinctual
so frequently these days that it might be surprising to hear that there are
many researchers who think that it is nothing of the kind
there are various alternative views of the nature of human language and in my
opinion language rests on six preconditions the platform society
intentionality cognition culture and communication once these conditions are
met language emerges naturally to be shaped like a tool by the culture in
which it develops like a tool it can vary widely parts of it can be lost and
it fits the needs of its own culture better than it fits
the needs of other cultures so what are these preconditions again the platform
is just the biological apparatus that allows us to have language as human
beings it includes our vocal apparatus interestingly enough there’s not a
single part of the human vocal apparatus that is exclusively dedicated to
language just as in fact contrary to what many people think there’s really
nothing really known in the brain that’s exclusively dedicated to language part
of the platform is a brain that has the ability to serialize to focus to
discriminate part of the platform or bodies of a certain type there’s an
there are a number of studies that suggest that only after hominids became
bipedal and were able to look around and move around better were they able to
develop some of the skills that underlie language it’s very important for us to
be able to recognize certain kinds of tasks central things one of the most
important things for humans to be able to recognize is the difference between
things and events so Mastodon kill is very important for us to hunt together
presumably one of the earliest functions of language was to hunt some people have
suggested to sing we don’t really know and anybody who tells you they know
exactly how language or originate it obviously doesn’t we don’t know and
we’re not going to know at the end of this lecture but I will tell you what I
think intentionality one of the most important cognitive abilities that we
have as human beings and something that’s absolutely crucial to language is
the ability to talk about the world and to orient ourselves with respect to the
world another term for intentionality is about nostalgia I believe that that is a threatening
animal so there’s something in the world and my mind is adapting to it it’s also
important that we have individual versus group intentionality that we’d be able
to recognize that I have intentions things that make my mind fit to the
world of the world fit to my mind but so do other people and that together our
minds can fit the world or make the world fit to us and many studies have
shown that the advent of language the onset of language in human children
isn’t some mysterious time that’s sparked by the genes but it really
begins with the onset of the child’s ability to recognize other human beings
as distinct from other animals and as having minds like the child’s and the
child’s actually able to do this at about nine months of age Society is
crucial to language I don’t want you to run in front of the best hunter I agree
not to steal your food we agree to constrain our behaviors for one another
Society is the set of constraints that groups of people impose on one another
and makes it quite different from culture but society is crucial to a
human interaction one of the things that the philosopher jean-jacques was so
missed when he was talking about the social contract and this is pointed out
by John Searle a philosopher at the University of California Berkeley that
the first really fundamental social contract that underlies all other social
contracts is our language the fact that we’re going to call that object a chair
and we’re gonna say that if I move quickly I’m running these are things
that we in a sense agree on the foundational the people who developed
English whoever they were and whenever that happened the people who developed
languages were developing a social contract a series of agreements that
certain things would stand for other things cognition is also important the
ability to think but not just the ability to think in any old way our
brains are much more than unordered sets of concepts our brains order and and
arranged hierarchically very important structural relationships
among concepts there are two interesting books out that are both out in the last
two years philosopher Michael debits book ignorant of language and in this
book he argues for the fact that language the structure of language
reflects the structure of thoughts thought came first the structures of
thought were imposed by the necessity have been able to think in a certain way
and those are reflected from time to time and languages most languages will
have most of the structure of thought but some people might think one way and
yet keep their language simpler than the way they think it can’t ever make
language more complex in the way you think because of the thinking under lies
language but you could have languages simpler than thought at least that’s
part of the hypothesis and that’s my hypothesis a counterproposal is a recent
work by Thomas Roper the prism of grammar in which he claims that without
language we would have never been able to think it’s language that gives us the
ability to think I don’t think that’s right I won’t have time to rebut all of
his arguments or maybe any of them in here so just let me say gratuitously
that I think he’s wrong but it’s a very interesting idea and this is a
chicken-egg problem what came first the ability to think which reflected itself
in the structure of language or the ability to talk which then reordered our
thought process Devitt i think makes a very good case in his book that thought
must have preceded language so we have grammar in the head and grammar in the
language and again what the question is which came first and then culture
culture is if society is the set of constraints that people share culture is
the way that a certain group of people a certain community gets meaning out of
the world how do we attach meaning how do we interpret the world around us so
when I’m with the pita hi device if I walk in the jungle and see a tree branch
moving up and down to me that just means a tree branch moving up and down but to
the pita how the direction of the movement whether other branches are
moving how far it moves will indicate whether it’s wind weather
what kind of animal it is and they will immediately make a decision as to
whether they should hunt or just keep going they get more meaning out of
certain things than I do just as I get more meaning out of they do so I’ve
taken Peter Hahn to the city and as we’re crossing the street I get meaning
out of the red light and I don’t step into the street but if I don’t tell them
not to they will step into the street because they don’t get the meaning out
of the red light and how we get meaning out of the world once again it’s culture
and then communication and by that I mean the mechanics of communication such
that it couldn’t be any other way we don’t need a grammar to tell us that
when we talk to one another we take turns because if we talk at the same
time we’re probably not going to hear each other so it just is useful in fact
incredibly useful for each one of us to take turns talking that imposes an order
on things it’s very important that we be able to talk about objects and events
that’s just part of what it means to be a group living in the world we have to
be able to distinguish objects and events so it’s not a surprise that
almost all languages if not all languages have nouns and verbs we have
to have purpose in our in our speech we have to have a sense of purpose and
intentionality and we have to be able to order things I cannot utter all the
words of a sentence at the same time I don’t have a parallel processing mouth
my mouth can only order things one word at a time if my even if my brain can
think of all the words at once and I doubt if it can I can’t say them all at
once so they have to come out in a certain order
that is ordering as part of what grammar is and so we need to ask ourselves from
time to time what else is there to grammar
besides the ordering that the words come out why do they come out in a certain
order and not another order it’s also important to recognize and now we’re off
the preliminary conditions a distinction that a number of linguists and
anthropologists have made between esoteric and exoteric
societies esoteric societies tend to talk about a very narrow and highly
expected range of topics not because they are too stupid to talk about
anything else but because their societal constraints and their cultural values
limit conversation to a range of topics also there they’re just their basic
experience if you live in the middle of the Amazon you probably won’t talk about
nuclear physics that doesn’t mean you’re not smart enough to talk about nuclear
physics but you’ve never had the training to talk about it and you’ve
never been exposed to it so you probably wouldn’t talk about it
exoteric societies on the other hand have a much wider range of things that
can talk about they’re probably part of the industrial world in some way and
they’re used to dealing with people from lots of different societies so the
cultural values that narrow the range of experiences that are expected to be
talked about are absent at to some degree so I was at a I was at a large
linguistic meeting that many years ago and and the Christian linguist Kenneth
Pike was us to say the invocation and he said Lord thanks for good food good
friends and good things to talk about and I added wine because that’s also
really good to have so there are just things that are that are that are
pleasurable about humans that involve communication we take a great deal of
pleasure out of communication I mean for some reason you all came here tonight to
hear a communication and perhaps to participate because we in our society
find it pleasurable the PETA ha also find communication pleasurable they just
would never sit quiet for one person to talk they don’t have that cultural
concept that that one person should dominate the conversational space but
I’m glad that you do and please don’t all talk at once if language is a tool
let’s just let’s just assume for a second that language might be a tool
what would that mean does it get does it have any predictions well for one thing
we have to be clear on what we mean by tool because my arm can be used as a
tool right but it doesn’t make since to call my arm only a tool because
the culture that I grow up in doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on the fact
that I grow an arm it could have an if I’m malnourished my arm could be one way
versus another my culture could make my arm at one shape or another based on the
uses to which is but but basically there’s very little effect on my culture
as to whether I grow an arm which I can then use for a number of cultural
purposes but shovels for example or bows and arrows or other tools really do
differ quite a bit according to the culture now we’ve seen you know the
pinna high bows and arrows are quite different from say the Bona wah which
only live a few hundred miles away in the jungle Bona wah make bows and arrows
that are very short maybe four feet tall and their arrows I mean if you saw a
Bono aa bow and arrow you would think they had only made it for tourists
nobody would hunt with these flimsy little things the pita high bows and
arrows are almost eight feet long some of the arrows range from six feet to 10
feet I actually have one that’s probably twelve feet long and so what’s the
difference here well the Bono ah make poison they make kirari and they tip the
ends of their arrows they put on the arrow tips
kirari they don’t need the arrow to kill the animal the poisons gonna kill the
animal in about 15 minutes so they have these flimsy little arrows that have
tips designed to break off inside and so they shoot it and the tip breaks off
inside and the guy goes jogging after it and it’s gonna fall dead very quickly
it’s very deadly poison Peter how don’t have poison the arrow does the killing
the impact of the arrow so I’ve seen Peter Homme in skewer wild pigs that
goes in one end and out the other they are very powerful with the bow so these
although the bow and arrow follows certain it solves a common problem how
to kill protein that moves faster than you it has a similar design because of
the physics but it has an enormous range of shapes based on the culture that it’s
found in and that’s what I want to claim
languages like languages very a lot more than we might have thought they very as
about as much as they could given the physical and other limitations that
we’ve been talking about much more than we would might have otherwise been led
to believe by the language as a native languages and Nate hypothesis some tools
can be lost I’ve heard it said that there are societies who have lost the
ability to make fire okay so are there languages are there peoples that have
lost the ability to speak to one another probably not on the one hand because
it’s so crucial to our survival that although we could get by without fire we
probably couldn’t get by without talking but there might be a few cases where
people have fairly minimal linguistic skills so for example if you travel the
trans Amazon Highway one interesting fact is that you’ll see a lot of the
settlers are tall and blonde and that most of them are either descended from
Germans or they have just come over from Germany now the ones who’ve just come
over from Germany speak broken Portuguese often but they speak fluent
German but the ones who are descended are German descendent don’t speak
Portuguese very well and they don’t speak German very well it’s it’s
fascinating that they’re sort of outcasts in Brazilian society many of
them and yet they’re not German anymore either
and so I’ve talked to people that couldn’t finish sentence they did just
seem to have a difficult time producing sentences in any language but they could
talk they could communicate but their language skills might not have been the
equal to the language skills of others that would be consistent with the
language tool hypothesis so what’s the principal task of the language tool if
you believe that language proceeds thought than the principal task of
language might be as chops is claimed to help us express our thoughts but if you
believe that thought precedes language then it seems pretty obvious that the
principal function of language is to communicate so it wouldn’t be a surprise
to you to tell me that the reason we have language is so we can talk to
another as opposed to just think people have taken a lot of different views on
how language and cognition and culture relate so one is that cognition
constrains grammar entirely and that’s Chomsky’s do and called universal
grammar or are what Steve Pinker calls the language instinct that were born
with this instinct with this universal grammar that kicks on and kicks off
according to biological program another view is that grammar constrains
cognition that was the view of Benjamin Lee Whorf the Whorf hypothesis who
claims that the way we talk influences the way we think so if we don’t have
words for time in our language it’s because not only do we not have words
about time will we be incapable of thinking about time very accurately
another view is that cognition constrains culture so Brent Berlin and
Paul Kaye two friends of mine a former anthropologist from the University of
California Berkeley have argued that all languages have color words and that the
color words will always fall into predetermined sets that’s interesting
it’s a universal claim and it’s based on the idea that cognition or the structure
of the brain more precisely that constrains culture another view is that
grammar constrains culture so Greg urban and anthropologist at the
University of Pennsylvania has argued that in some societies the passive voice
is much more common than the active voice which is true and in societies
where this stories are about people and they’re almost always in the passive
voice these heroes the heroes of these
societies are entities that have things done to them more than do things to
other people and societies which have texts that are mainly active voice the
heroes do things and he’s argued that this produces different concept of what
a hero is in the two societies is someone that’s always having things
happen to them or someone that’s always doing things to make things happen the
other view another view is that culture constrain
cognition and there’s a lot of research in psychology and anthropology about the
long-term effects of thinking of cultural restrictions on certain
behaviors so for example if you if you don’t have any numbers you’re probably
and you never think about counting well let me rephrase that if you don’t have
any neat to count and you don’t have any need for numbers you probably aren’t
going to develop them and then finally which is the view that I’m talking about
here I is culture constrains grammar now what I want to claim is that all of
these views are right to some degree or another every one of them has a grain of
truth and it’s sort of silly to produce the kinds of dichotomies that we find in
the literature such that you’re either one or the other I think they’re all
right in different domains some are more likely than others I don’t think
Chomsky’s universal grammar is this is as strong a hypothesis as many people do
but there are certainly aspects of language that are universal now
numerical cognition what are the first things I’ve claimed about the feet aha
is that they don’t have numbers and they don’t count and that’s been criticized
by a number of people you know so people ask me things like you mean mothers
don’t know how many children they have no they don’t they don’t know if it’s
three or four but they know all their children’s names and they won’t go
anyplace without them so they don’t miss their children they don’t lose their
children I mean they miss their children in one sense they don’t miss them in
another they they don’t lose their children if somebody brings in fish you
mean he doesn’t know whether he has four fish or five fish no he doesn’t and they
wouldn’t have any usefulness to him to know so how could you show that people
don’t have number well first of all you can say that in you know thirty years of
looking for numbers they don’t have any there was something that I thought meant
one when and something that I thought meant to when you hear the difference
when when and then something that I thought meant many bodies or but the
thing that means one actually is you can say that a baby a male baby for example
is man point and you can say that a female
baby is a woman weight and you can say that I want one fish what I thought was
one fish but it just means little fish and what I thought meant to means more
so how do we test this this caused a lot of controversy so a group of MIT
psychologists flew down with me to the Amazon in January of 2007 and they
wanted to test them so we did a series of experiments and and one of the things
we noticed is that when the PETA Hawk count upwards everybody and so that’s
the top top graph the black everyone used when for one object and everyone
used when for two objects okay so is one it’s two and then with the number of
three we started to get a breakdown some would use when and some would use Boggy
so and so we get a systematic results from that point on okay so well at least
it seems that one and tours are set right but not really because now we ask
them to count backwards in other words we start with 10 objects and we start
taking them away and we ask them to name what they got so in the first set we
gave them one object and asked them what it was called and gave them two and
asking what it was called and gave them three all the way up to ten but in the
next test we started with ten and started taking them away
and here the breakdown comes a lot faster so for 10 we got a lot we got
some people saying win which I thought meant – and many other people say in Bar
Geisel and 9 & 8 & 7 but when we got the 6 some people were saying what I thought
meant 1 well what’s going on here why do they switch to 1 and then by the time we
get down to 3 it’s all 1 whereas in the top column there were nobody used what I
thought meant 1 for 3 because their relative quantities when you start off
with 10 small appears a lot faster when you’re taking things away but when you
only start off with 1 and then add you’re increasing so this was taken and
I think it’s a good result showing that these are
not number words at all these are relative quantities there’s also no
grammatical number I didn’t think this was that uncommon but my colleague in
the UK Greville Corbett who’s published a book called number which is about
grammatical number says that the peat AHA speak the only language known
without grammatical numbers so this first word he I J hey how I bogey by
agha Peter hot people evil spirit fie fear
the pita ha are afraid of evil spirits or a pita house afraid of an evil spirit
or the pita ha afraid of an evil spirit or a pita house afraid of evil spirits
it can mean any of those things they just don’t mark the distinction so
number doesn’t play a role either in the grammar or in the counting system so
syntactic complexity is the next issue and this is something that’s really
caused a lot of controversy so give you a quote from Borges the world of
appearances is complicated and language has only verbalized a miniscule part of
its potential indefatigable combinations why not create a word only one for the
converging perception of the cowbells announcing day’s end and the Sun set in
the distance like bread and love languages shared with others carlos
fuentes these are views of language that linguists don’t tend to share there’s no
romance in our linguistic view of language and maybe we should put a
little bar back in one of the one of the things I claimed that pita ha lacks is
quantification so it doesn’t even have words for all each every these kinds of
things who sits down some people the philosopher Donald Davidson said the
first step towards becoming a human thinker is to develop quantifiers so he
I 10 hey hey Oh gah gah gah bit this can mean that all the Peter ha went to bathe
or went swimming but it really means just the bigness of people and it drives
some people crazy when I say it means the bigness of rather than all well how
do you test that let’s see if I’ve got that if I say let me just give you an
example if I have a piece of meat in front of you and you say I want all of
the meat and I say Oh kay and I cut off a section of the end
and give it to you did I give you all of the meat no how many think I gave you
all of the meat how many think I did not give you all of the meat okay the pita
high would have raised their hands the opposite direction if raising hands
meant the slightest to them and the reason for that is it can own it only
means really the bulk of the meat there’s no precise sense in which it
means all of them mean so they would have said no I didn’t give you the bulk
of the meat if I had taken half of it but if I just take if I still give you
more than half that that’s okay that’s not a lie
that’s one way we test those are called truth conditions under what conditions
would you say that what happened was true that what was claimed was true and
the truth conditions of these words don’t meet the the concept the truth
conditions of quantifiers as they’re normally understood so in that sense
pita ha doesn’t have quantifiers and here’s the claim that has really caused
a lot of controversy recursion the ability you see recursion and lots of
things if you hold a mirror up in the bathroom and get that whole bunch of
mirrors that you see off in the distance that’s visual recursion I played the
guitar you know and Jimi Hendrix made auditory oral recursion and art form
it’s called feedback okay the amplifier picks up itself picks up itself picks up
itself picks up itself just keeps going on and on and on those are forms of
recursion now when I wrote the article that in which I originally claimed they
didn’t have recursion I didn’t expect it to be a big deal I didn’t know that
Chomsky and a couple of others had just published an article saying that
recursion is the essence of human language and it’s what no other species
has and without it you can’t have a language well that’s wrong but anyway
and they think I’m wrong these are difficult issues to tease apart it’s not
that easy but it’s also not impossible to make the case in a language lacks
recursion those give you two samples from a text the Jaguar pounced upon my
dog it died okay aqui aqui check out Takia bye big boy there should be a
period actually between our body pit and koi this text was collected about 30
years ago so these are two sentences the next sentence they’re the Jaguar pounced
on my dog it killed him it happened with respect to me check gagaga bite big boy
I if you go through PETA hot texts and there are several in the book that’s
coming out not that that it’s not a linguistic book it’s a it’s a bedtime
reading book you should all go get that book anyway but there are simple there
are plenty of examples of PETA ad text and why the claim that there’s no
recursion makes sense and how you can have it actually there’s a really
interesting mathematical result that’s come out in the last couple of months by
Jerry Hobbs is a computer scientist at Stanford who has argued that putting two
sentences together have the same semantics whether you put one inside
another or we just say them side by side it’s still possible to interpret them as
recursively so if I say I saw them I want the hammock you sold me the hammock
that can have the same interpretation as I want the hammock you sold me okay it’s
just a it depends on where you place the recursion in the brain or in language
and that’s the big issue and that’s what has failed to be addressed in a lot of
the literature complaining or arguing that language is always recursive so
what’s the evidence that PETA ha doesn’t have recursion this ability to put one
thing inside another in the language well there are no embedded clauses
there’s you know in English an example of recursion is I said that you would
come here tomorrow that you would come here tomorrow as a sentence and it’s
inside another sentence I said that or in a noun phrase and I can say John’s
brother’s house house is a noun inside the noun phrase brother’s house and
brother’s house is a noun phrase inside the noun phrase John’s brother’s house
you don’t get these structures in Peter ha no embedded clauses no recursive
possessor phrases and we worked very hard in the experiments to try to get
these no recursive modification I remember I
got the pita hot to say to me one time to big red airplanes now that can be
recursion 11 though that doesn’t have to be one adjective phrase inside another
it could just be a string of adjectives but that actually as I looked through
Pina ha sentences discourses I never found examples like this so I asked up
you know how can I say this yeah you say it they wouldn’t say it why did you say
I can say it your pain you could say whatever you want you have to be very
careful in linguistic fieldwork that you don’t this like in the law that you
don’t ask leading questions because you can get answers that satisfy you but are
really not true so I’ve never found naturally occurring examples of
modifiers inside modifiers now I give you give you an exotic Oaks built on
recursion right so my dad’s an old Indian fighter okay he fights old
Indians or he could just mean he’s an old guy who fights Indians that’s based
on recursion whether old occurs in one noun phrase or another which both
together form another one or old men and women that who’s old well it could be
both men and women are old or just the men are old and the women are young old
men and women and that’s based on recursion does old modify men and women
or does it just modify men exciting stuff isn’t it I know that I know that
these can seem really arcane but if the ability Chomsky’s claimed for example
that recursion underlies the creativity of language what does he mean by the
creativity of language he means the fact that for any sentence in the English
language I can produce one longer than that there is no upper bound on the
length of any sentence and and there’s no upper bound on the number of
sentences of English how many you can you can ask the question although it
really doesn’t make much sense how many words are there in English somebody
might try to give some sense to that but nobody can ask the question and expect
to get an sir how many sentences are there in
English because the answer is there don’t seem that doesn’t seem to be an
upper limit on it however it has been shown by a number of mathematical
linguists that you know the arguments that show language is infinite don’t go
through there’s really no mathematical argument that could show that a language
is infinite although all we can ever show is the grammar of the language
isn’t infinite the grammar that the linguist wrote but not that the language
itself is infinite so what’s the evidence that PETA ha doesn’t have
recursion well there’s a number of specific linguistic arguments that can
be brought to bear on the fact that it doesn’t have records there’s just no
evidence for it in the language and there’s a there’s experimental evidence
now to the contrary but if it’s true that the language lacks recursion then
languages can differ a lot more than we thought and what is interesting about
that in the context of what we were talking about earlier in terms of
thought versus language is that I can show that the PETA ha think recursively
they put stories together in such a way that you get subtopics inside of larger
topics that’s recursion the Nobel Prize winning economist herb Simon argued that
all information processing is recursive when you open up your computer and go to
a folder what’s inside the folder often another folder and then another folder
we organized if that’s recursion we organize information recursively we
think recursively but that doesn’t mean that we have to have language
recursively so what language recursion so what could keep recursion out of
language well if we’re all more or less equally intelligent and we use recursion
as as necessary part of thought which has nothing really to do with language
then what to keep recursion out of language is culture recursion has an
important function it enables us when we put one sentence inside another we make
a large sentence that’s got more information than either one of those two
together and in complex societies the compaction of impacting information is
an important cultural tool it’s very important to us but if in a society
that’s esoteric and doesn’t need to make talk about complicated subjects in it it
can take its information more slowly so for
example when people listen to the PETA Hotel stories are shocked by how much
repetition there is that’s a stylistic the thing that the PETA how find
desirable they love to repeat so they’ll say he said he said he said he said he
said and you know get on with it but that to them is interesting they’re like
also it’s useful because there’s a lot of noise going on in the background and
if I keep repeating things and even though there’s a lot of people you know
their kids crying and dogs barking and other things going on you can still make
out what I’m talking about but they don’t need recursion they think
recursively but they don’t need recursion in the language and that is
very difficult for the idea that recursion is the essence of human
language so here’s one reply that was given Chomsky said to me both in
correspondence and in public discussion that you know the fact that one language
relaxed recursion what who cares you know that’s just one language that
didn’t lack it that didn’t have it it’s just a tool and language chose it or not
but just think about it if recursion is the essence of human language and
recursion doesn’t appear in a language in principle it doesn’t have to appear
in any language so then you could have the case where the essence of human
language doesn’t have to appear in any language I find that difficult to follow
now Peter ha lacks color words linguists don’t care about this but some
anthropologists do they do they can describe colors so they can say meal by
eye that’s how they usually discuss black the blood is dirty
they say red blood-like they say white you can see through it or you can see it
well green it’s still immature my saga it’s still immature these are just
descriptive expressions they can suck they can talk about colors they just
don’t have words for them there’s no need for the words and when there’s a
need to talk about colors they describe them in different ways that fit one of
the most interesting thing about Pino how language to me is they don’t have a
lot of fixed expressions they invent things in fact it’s
interesting that a language that seems to like recursion it’s very very
creative so I got the word I thought it was the word to smell once I was walking
past a fire and they were barbecuing something and I said oh that’s me how
does how do I say smell I made the you know sound for sniffing and everything
and they gave me a long phrase and that phrase happened to mean I found out
later it seemed really too long to mean smell and it meant the smoke is pleasant
as it hits me in the nose right now as I walk by that’s a word form that’s a
single word there’s a number of things that I’ve talked about in other
publications about the influence of culture on the sound structure of PETA
ha and I’m gonna skip those now because there’s not time for them but there’s a
couple of other interesting points there are no creation myths in PETA ha they
don’t tell stories about the way the world used to be everything that they
talk about they either observe directly or it was told to them by someone who
observed it directly they have the simplest kinship system known they have
a term for a generation above no gender distinctions so there’s no word for
mother or father there’s just a word for parent there’s a word for sibling and
there’s a word for child the only gender distinction is my biological son and
daughter there’s there’s there are terms for those there are no perfect tenses
you don’t say I had eaten when you had arrived when you arrived perfect tenses
our tenses that aren’t based on reference to the moment of speech but to
some other moments so when you arrived that’s respect to the moment that we’re
talking right now but had eaten is with respect to when you arrived and that’s
that is outside of immediate experience and that’s not the way they talk it so
they lack they let the elect present perfect tenses this summarizes all the
time words at the pita ha have another day already night early morning before
sunrise now full moon low water sunset or sunrise it literally means when the
touch when the Sun touches the ground during the day which means in the Sun
when the sun’s big day which means fire and high water high water is a time of
year what unites all of these things if I’m correct is that declarative Pete aha
uh pterence is contain only assertions related directly to the moment of speech
either experienced by the speaker or is witnessed by someone alive during the
lifetime of the speaker if that’s correct it means that culture controls
language and if that’s correct if culture actually not only controls
language but the grammar the recursion recursion that that has been claimed to
be the essence of grammar then that’s very difficult to reconcile with the
idea that grammars are specified in the genes as opposed to being shaped as
cultural tools by societies as they’re needed so among the conclusions were
left with the question how much variation is possible in human language
what are the predictions of the tool hypothesis what are the predictions of
the innate estai Pappas’s the Unitas hypothesis doesn’t predict the amount of
variation that we find in the world’s languages PETA HEIs just one people have
asked me why don’t other languages show this kind of variation well part of it
is because we don’t look for them we’ve been told it doesn’t exist so we ask
questions that are answered in this is in in the theory that we have used the
most here’s an experiment trying to show recursion just to give you some idea the
way okay so we were trying to get him to use a relative clause I mean I knew he
wouldn’t produce a relative clause but the people from MIT who are sitting in
the background wanted to see if he’d produce a relative clause so it’d give
him a little doll there’s a guy yeah there’s a guy here’s a guy yeah there’s
a guy this guy got bit by a Jaguar yep bit by a Jaguar okay so I take him oh I
take away the guy who was bitten by a Jaguar and I say who was taken away who
did I take if there are relative clauses he would
have said the one who was bitten by a Jaguar which would have shown recursion
but he said the Jaguar the meaning the guy who was taken away by the Jaguar
that was bitten by the Jaguar so they have ways of talking around recursion
but all these experiments with 16 different people over a period of days
showed not one single example of recursion and those weren’t the only
tests that we used we used a number of them so my MIT colleagues were fairly
convinced that the evidence is consistent with my proposal they would
never say it confirmed my proposal because how can you confirm an argument
from silence if I claim that it doesn’t have it you can’t prove that it doesn’t
have it ok you can show that it’s highly unlikely that it has it’s like if you
know if your wife or girlfriend asked you if you were playing around you know
how do you prove that you weren’t it’s very difficult so don’t put yourself in
a situation where you’re asked that question so I I’ll stop now
and I guess we take a break and then we see if people want to hang around and
ask questions or sure I can take what yeah take questions if people have
questions push the bottom I guess I’m an expert on
these now yeah oh yeah yeah I think that’s wrong I
don’t think the stimulus is impoverished and there are a number of people who
would agree with me Chomsky calls is Plato’s problem how is it the children
learn language exposed to so little data that’s the idea this is an argument that
I learned in my linguistic cradle and and it comes from Plato so Plato calls
Chomsky calls a Plato’s problem well in my book that’s currently in progress on
which I argue that language is not an 8 I have a chapter called Aristotle’s
answer in which I argue that Aristotle recognized that plato was wrong and that
language emerges from culture and he gave reasons for it but Jeff Pullum and
a number of other linguists and psychologists have argued at length that
the claim that that’s that the environment doesn’t have enough data so
here’s the idea the environment doesn’t have enough data for any child to learn
their language and yet they do learn their language so how do they do it in
the absence of the data it’s in their heads when they’re born ok this is very
similar to Socrates as questions Socrates shows and Plato’s dialogue Meno
that we all know geometry by taking a little janitor boy little clean that boy
and showing that he knows geometry but actually the evidence seems to suggest
that the poverty of stimulus argument is just wrong that it’s not too poor that
there is enough stimulus for children to actually learn their language there’s no
paradox there’s no need to claim that they’re that they supply something from
the genes your sibling parent-child biological
daughter yeah a bint person so the word for pita ha they that Peter has not a
pita ha word that’s the name of foreigners Brazilians gave to them they
call themselves he IJ which means the straight ones he is straight they call
us a way which means bent and that’s what I I’m bent they call their language
up by tears straight head they call our language bad ISIL crooked head so
they’re fairly ethnocentric some of them some of them after a long period of time
call me a huggie which means sibling but most of the time
they don’t they just call me by my name which is pop I see which is the name of
a really old man because they say I am sold it looks like I’m gonna fall sold
it looks like I’m gonna fall sold it looks like I’m gonna fall sold it looks
like I’m gonna fall sold it looks like I’m gonna fall sold it looks like I’m
gonna fall sold it looks down dead any minute
they that’s what they say but they so they just normally call me bent as they
would call you that I really enjoyed this and one of the
stories that’s told to us at learn about language is that you know the glory of
humanity is that all of you no matter what culture language language is a
little more or less equal and that’s a story that some confirming certain
values and what you just said earlier that kind of disconfirming example an
exception a small tribe a small exception one that apparently Chomsky
can more or less dismiss but you’ve also claimed if I heard you right that you
haven’t simply found a disconfirming example you’ve found this sort of hold
on a continuum have language that has a lot of Persian
inventiveness a lot of counting and so forth and and
this one that has none of each and suggested that there’s a sort of
continuum between question number one is raelians for that are you making that
claim there so is there evidence for that and number two if that’s the case okay
the evidence for that is first Pete aha second Australian languages that shows
many many Australian Aboriginal languages so characteristics similar a
famous linguist that was a colleague of Chomsky’s many years ago Ken Hale argued
that some languages of Australia were what he called non configurational they
didn’t put their sentences together the same way that we put ours together and
as I look at his data I think ken was actually saying that recursion is
lacking and lots of places you expected to find it in these languages but he
didn’t come out and say it that way except in one footnote of an article
that was published in an obscure place in the 70s that some people have pointed
out to me where he said this language might not have any recursion but he
never made much of it ken was not he was a very nice person not very
argumentative he died a couple of years ago but I’m not particularly nice or do
I mind to argue with people so it seems to me that the Australian languages
really do show another point on the continuum they certainly have things
Peter howl acts but they seem to have other characteristics that Peter has
that make them different so I think and so if we look for these things well how
can we reinterpret some of the data because everyone knows when you write
old grammar of a language you didn’t describe everything there were a lot of
things you didn’t observe and there are a lot of other things that didn’t fit
you didn’t lie about them but you just didn’t talk about them because
know how to talk about them and I think that a lot of the absence of recursion
evidence is left out of the things because because we just didn’t know how
to talk about it how where does that leave us as human beings well I think
that there’s a great amount of unity among humans it’s just not always where
we thought it would be I think that the cerebral cortex provides enough humanity
and enough unification of human beings we think we have similar cognitive
capabilities but notice that if I’m correct
if languages really do differ like this and another hypothesis that language
linguist hold dear is gone that is it is not possible to translate from one
language to all other languages there are some things that you can’t say from
one language to another yeah that’s a very good question well
when I walk with the pita ha out into the jungle I I’m usually asking them the
name of plants it doesn’t do me much good because I’m not a botanist I mean I
asked them that out of us out of a sense of duty they give me the answers
everyone is different and then they ask me what do you call it in your language
that what’s that tree what’s that tree what’s that tree there
are all trees and they say you don’t know the difference between these things
no gosh your language is really bad it confirms the idea that they’re like
so every Pete AHA child knows the name of what would be in their system the
species of every plant every bit of flora and fauna in their environment
they know not only their names but they know how they work they know how they
grow they know the behavior of every animal we can be going along and see
bubbles in the water and they know if it’s rocks underneath or whether it’s a
certain kind of fish I remember one of my favorite stories it’s somewhat on
point with your question is we went to upriver aways my daughter and I am and
to Pete aha and my motorboat and he I said what are we going to do he said
we’re going to kill an anaconda and I said really and so we get to this Bank
and he said look down there can you see his hole the the PETA the the my see
River is green water and it’s really hard to see below it I said and
anacondas are green I said now I don’t see its hole so he takes that longbow
and he shoves it down under the water and he said that
is gonna make it mad and he said do you see it and I didn’t see anything and
then suddenly I started seeing mud swirl around and he stood up and fired two
arrows one right after another into the water
and suddenly this smallish ten-foot anaconda comes flying out of the water
with two arrows through the head and he pulled it any said let’s go scare the
women so they interpret nature and their ability to perceive nature in their
environment far exceeds mine if far exceeds mine I’m a complete disabled
person as far as they’re concerned okay the PETA Hawk can not only communicate
using consonants involves but they can whistle their language so if I say there
is a pocket which is a large rodent over there I can say how I got here or I can
whistle it except Peter ha whistling is ingress if the air comes in instead of
going out which I can’t do very well and they can hum it they they and they can
sing it which I can’t do very well but they separate the tones and they have a
different rhythm each one of these I call channels of discourse and each one
of them has a different cultural function so humming is used for intimate
relations mothers and children lovers or it can be used to talk with your mouth
full or it can be used to talk for privacy singing is used to communicate
new information or dreams or encounters with spirits whistling is used for men
only and while they’re hunting so these all have different functions and it has
implications for the sound system of the language showing that you can’t even
figure out how the sounds of the language work until you understand the
culture yeah I was wondering giving given the
difference of language whether or not there like by different kinds of
metaphysical problems what we would find no they don’t draw they well I shouldn’t
say they don’t draw such a distinction they don’t talk about it in those terms
they do know that but but they don’t talk about life after death they don’t
they don’t see that they don’t believe in that they don’t they’re not bothered
by a lot of speculation in fact almost none because of the fact that they talk
about what they can experience directly they have asked me things like do
Americans die because if if you’re as old as I am they must not they they
sometimes wonder after I get out of the water and my hair is different than it
was before I got in that the same person or is that a spirit now so they you know
I’ve told people that the Peter ha probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I
turned into a Jaguar and run around the village and then turn back into me I’m a
weird person who knows what I’m capable of but these things don’t seem to bother
them thank you all and we have punchin
cookies over here we come yourself please

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