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Title: Piraha. Language Universals and Linguistic Relativity
Authors: Moffitt, Nina
Keywords: American Indigenous Languages (Southern)
Muran Languages
Issue Date: 2009
Publisher: Oberlin College
Abstract: Dan Everett (b. 1951) is an ex~missionary and linguist whose scholarly work of the past 30 years focuses on the Pirahli, an indigenous tribe of the Amazon who live on , the banks of the Maici River in Brazil. In 2005 Everett published a controversial article entitled "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahli" in Current Anthropology, in which he posited that properties of the Piraha language are constrained by cultural values that exclude grammatical and lexical elements not immediately within the realm of personal experience (Everett 2005). Everett contends that these values constitute a cultural principle, titled the "innnediacy of experience principle," centered around cultural conservation and rejection of everything abstract, foreign, or nonwitnessed (Everett 2005). In his 2005 article, Everett asserts that his proposal of the absence of certain granunatical properties in Pirahli challenge the widely accepted theories of No am Chomsky's Universal Granunar and Charles Hockett's design features of human language (Everett 2005). His claims also reopen the dialogue about the disputed Whorfian Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, asking to what extent language and culture influence one other. In this thesis I will place Dan Everett's work on the Pirahii in the context of these linguistic theories, criticisms and perpetual questions. In the fIrst section of this thesis, entitled "The Case of the Pirahii," I will provide a deeply descriptive account ofPirahii language and culture based on Everett's ethnographic reports. First I will describe Everett's work with the Pirahiiand provide theories about the history of the indigenous populations of the Amazon, the origins of the Pirahii people and their language. Then I will proceed to explain Everett's hypothesis, the immediacy of experience principle, and describe pertinent features of Pirahii language. These features will include phonemic inventory, tonality, sentence forms, color terms, number, quantifIers, and recursion (or "embedding"). I will spend time particularly on those features that Everett claims to be absent in Pirahii, which are numbers, quantifIers, color terms, and recursion. After discussing features of Pirahii language, I will describe features ofPirahii daily life, culture and customs according to Everett's reports, and how these elements are used to contribute to Everett's thesis. Features of Pirahii life and culture to be discussed include subsistence methods, patterns of sleep, rules of marriage and sex, kinship terms, oral history and cosmology, material culture, art, technology, ritual, spirits, and social control. Everett describes many of these features as relatively sparse or lacking in Pirahii culture in comparison to other cultures and indigenous Amazonian tribes, positing that some of these features require abstract thought or knowledge that is not derived from immediate experience. He then connects these features to those allegedly absent features of Pirahii language and contends that they are drawn from the same cultural principle, the immediacy of experience principle (also referred to as IEP). In the second section of this thesis, entitled "Language Universals," I will discuss the study oflanguage universals, recounting the work of No am Chomsky, Joseph Greenberg, Charles Hockett, and Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. After describing Chomsky's theories of universal grammar and the significance of recursion to human language according to Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002), I will explain Everett's claim that Pirahii lacks recursion, and discuss criticisms from both perspectives. Then I will explain Charles Hockett's design features of human language, three of which Everett claims are violated in Pirahli language. Finally, I will present Berlin and Kay's 1969 study of basic color terms, after which I will discuss the significance of color terms in Pirahli and the ways in which translators can interpret those terms to be present or absent in Pirahli. The third section, entitled "The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis," will document the historical development of the hypothesis and explain the various components of the theory, including the work of Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. In the fourth and last section, called "Discussion," I will discuss Everett's methods and writing style. Everett's work is contentious among linguists and anthropologists and has received significant criticism (Replies to Everett 2005: Berlin 2005; Kay 2005, Levinson 2005, Surralles 2005, Wierzbicka 2005; Nevins, Pesetsky, Rodrigues 2007). Everett has been criticized as lacking substantial evidence for his claims about the "gaps" or absence of features in Pirahli language as well as his claims about the root of these gaps. Each claim about a supposedly absent feature in Pirahli has been contested and is ambiguous due to differing interpretations of Everett's data. In a response to Everett's 2005 article written by Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues (2007), most ifnot all of Everett' s claims about Pirah1l language and culture are rejected on the grounds of alternate interpretations. While Everett has received much criticism for his methodology, translations and interpretations, many critics also focus on the implications of his claims for the Pirahii people. Everett's writing style is criticized as indelicate and at times shocking, and has been said to portray the Pirahii as primitive (Wierzbicka 2005). He is accused of exoticizing (Wierzbicka 2005) and oversimplifying Pirah1l culture (Surraltes 2005, Levinson 2005), as well as exaggerating the uniqueness of Pirah1l linguistic features among the world's languages (Wierzbicka 2005, Levinson 2005, Kay 2005, Berlin 2005). Furthermore, Everett's claim about the absence of recursion in Pirahii can be interpreted as dehumanizing to the Pirahii because recursion is considered a fundamental element of differentiation between animal and human communication (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002). These criticisms will be discussed in the [mal section of this thesis, bringing together the possible implications of Everett's work for theories oflanguage universals and linguistic relativity, for the Pirahii people and for the field of linguistic anthropology. In conclusion, Everett has presented an interesting and unusual case that should be studied further. I agree with Everett's statement of the importance of fieldwork in linguistic anthropology, and with his emphasis on linguistic relativity. However, I find the way in which Everett has presented his findings to be insensitive and at times inappropriate, as well as (perhaps unknowingly) representing a resurrection of the now discredited anthropological interest in the "primitive mind." Everett's hypothesis about the immediacy of experience principle is an interesting concept in theory, although I find his descriptive works to be insufficient as definitive evidence due to their limitations and bias. While some other scientists have aimed at reevaluating these claims, such as Peter Gordon (1993), no other linguist has attained fluency in Piraha, which makes empirical research and fieldwork challenging. Because Everett's work is one of the only sources of linguistic data on the Piraha, further study must be conducted by other researchers in order to validate Everett's claims. At present, Everett's research serves as a vehicle for dialogue between ethnographers and theorists, causing us to revisit issues that have been at the core of the discipline of anthropology throughout history.
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