Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Piraha debate heats up

A recent Language Log post alluded below the fold to two very interesting papers continuing the Piraha debate. Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment (Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues) reexamines Everett 2005's claims in light of Everett 1986, pointing out substantial and inadequately explained discrepancies between the two, and concluding with the rather hard-hitting statement that:
CA asserts, for example, that the embedded clauses amply documented and described in the earlier work are not actually embedded clauses, but offers no account or even acknowledgment of the numerous facts that argue in favor of the old view over the new. Similarly, CA offers as an argument for the new view the absence of long-distance wh-movement, but offers no new account of the data that in earlier work motivated the claim that Pirahã has no overt wh-movement of any kind. Likewise, as we have seen, CA asserts that Pirahã lacks quantifiers, but offers no coherent evidence against the proposal that the words described as quantifiers in the earlier work were described wrongly. In section 5, we have suggested that the situation is little better with respect to CA's discussion of Pirahã culture. CA simply asserts that Pirahã grammar has properties that, if true, would place it outside the pale of grammar and culture as we know it and would demand a special explanation for Pirahã's seeming uniqueness.
Everett replies in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar in PIRAHÃ: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2007). He protests their efforts to provide comprehensible glosses for his 2005 sentences, objecting that considerations like what "the best free translation, the least exotic translation" is are irrelevant to the final analysis, which should rely solely on the truth conditions for the word's use, and that in any event "armchair linguists who wouldn't be able to pronounce a single Pirahã word" are in no position to give such glosses. Glosses like "cloth arm" are superior to glosses like "hammock" (which is what the compound in question means), because they help inform the reader about the complexity of Pirahã morphology. He also offers some interesting evidence on why he now analyses what he had previously termed a "nominaliser" (and had glossed as such in 2005) as a marker of old information. His core objection seems to be that such efforts as Nevins et al's are bound to fail because not all languages "translate fairly well into one another", and in particular, Piraha cannot be translated well into English; the comprehensible translations they propose don't have the same truth conditions, and the "literal" "translations" (yes, I think that was worth two pairs of scare quotes) that he sometimes gives (eg Everett 2005:624: “Smallness of cans remaining associated was in the gut of the canoe”; what would the truth conditions for something being "in the gut of the canoe" be, I wonder?) don't exoticise the language so much as attempt to render its genuine exoticism into English.

The debate looks like an argument about where the burden of proof lies: for example, does Everett need to provide more than two examples of how the truth conditions of Piraha "ba´aiso" differ from those of English "whole" (supposedly; the anaconda skin example works just fine for me in English, presumably implying that my word "whole" does not in fact mean the same as Everett's word "whole"), or do his critics need to go learn Piraha before they can question his claims about the meaning of "ba´aiso"? Are his critics justified in assuming that, in the absence of contrary published evidence, a given Piraha structure will have a familiar counterpart? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Incidentally, Everett's response provides another interesting example of differing truth conditions for a sentence in English. In his idiolect, apparently, the fact that, when outsiders come,
"They say hello and the Pirahãs say hello back. They ask if there are any fish and the Pirahãs say that there are fish or are not fish. Many Pirahãs can communicate at a rudimentary level in Portuguese. But they lose the gist of conversations very easily and often after someone has left they ask me to interpret... The best speakers of Portuguese among the Pirahãs speak it about as well as I do French. I can say a few things and find a bathroom, but I am not ready for any conversation of any depth at all."
is so perfectly compatible with all Piraha being "monolingual" that he can actually offer it as evidence for the claim.


bulbul said...

From Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues:

"Universal Grammar" is nothing
more than a name for the human capacity for language, an aspect of our genetic endowment.

This is the second time I've encountered this particularly nasty example of retconning this week. And just like the previous time, I can't help but wonder - when did that happen? Somewhere between PandP and Minimalism?

Anonymous said...

How is this retconning? Look at Chomsky's "Aspects", index entry for "Grammar, universal" and you'll find that this is the sense he originally intended for the term. See especially the quote on p.5 of the book and what he wrote afterwards.

Anonymous said...

what is retconning?

John Cowan said...

Anonymous #2: see this definition.

Lameen Souag said...

I thought Everett did make a fair point on UG: while we know humans have something extra that lets them learn language, we have no convincing reasons to believe this is modular or specific to language learning. Even Chomsky seems to have adopted this position (narrow language faculty = recursion), though you'd never know it to look at Minimalism...

David Marjanović said...

all Piraha being "monolingual"
I suppose he's trying to say that none of them is fluent in any other language, so none of them could bring up their children in another language.

bulbul said...

Look at Chomsky's "Aspects", index entry for "Grammar, universal" and you'll find that this is the sense he originally intended for the term.
Then you must have a different copy of Aspects. That quote on p. 5, for example:

Those things, that all languages have in common, or that are necessary to every language, are treated of in a science, which some have called Universal of Philosophical Grammar.

Nothing about human capacity, nothing about genetic endowment.
Now how does that go together with what Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues claim? And, more importantly, how does that go with Chomsky's definition of grammar as "rules"?

Anonymous said...

"We have no convincing reasons to believe this is modular or specific to language learning" - Lameen

That's hardly true, many things about language learning are modular. Chomsky limiting himself to recursion was his 'special trait' of language evolution not language acquistion.

The details of the critical period are to be worked out and seem to be reasonably variable from person to person but what everyone has to agree on is that lexical learning does not have nearly the same critical period as syntactic or even phonological parameter setting.

Similarly, learning to write and read, learn musical instruments, dance, even learning to walk doesn't seem to have the same cut off point as a Japanese speaker being confronted for the first time at 30 with a polish consonant cluster!

In short I can see evidence for language learning modularity from other types of learning in my cereal let alone the natural world!


John Cowan said...

I use "monolingual" in the same sense as Everett; I call myself monolingual, despite the fact that I know a few words and sentences in various languages -- not because I can't ask for the men's room in German, but because that's about all I can ask for. As Geoffrey Pullum says about Dutch, my "natural and unfettered capacity" is, outside English, rather fettered.

Anonymous said...

Ad Bulbul, who wrote:

Then you must have a different copy of Aspects. That quote on p. 5, for example [...] Nothing about human capacity, nothing about genetic endowment.

Probably our copies of Aspects are identical, but clearly our computers are displaying different versions of this blog. The issue under discussion was terminological: whether Nevins et al. were following Chomsky's original usage in employing the term "Universal Grammar" for "the human capacity for language" whatever it may turn out to be or whether they were instead offering a
"particularly nasty example of retconning" for a term whose original meaning was different.

What Chomsky wrote on page 5 of Aspects is (not surprisingly) continued on page 6, where he writes (among many other things) "The grammar of a particular language, then, is to be supplemented by a universal grammar that accomodates the creative aspect of language use and expresses the deep-seated regularities which, being universal, are omitted from the grammar itself."

Later in the book, he characterizes and nuances the notion of "being universal". For example, on page 27, he writes "A theory of linguistic structure that aims for explanatory adequacy incorporates an account of linguistic universals, and it attributes tacit knowledge of these universals to the child." I don't feel like copying out the whole page, but if you look, you'll see the word "innate appearing a few lines later, clarifying what he means by "the child".

I think that's close enough to "the human capacity for language, an aspect of our genetic endowment" for government work. No retconning whatsoever.

debatepopular said...

The fact that this debate is beyond me, so this one is amazonico lenguaje.Igual I just speak a few languages but it is good to know others.

Mihir Sharma said...

Instead of aspects, read the work cited by Everett(Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002)Also, read "language complexity as an evolving variable" which has answers to some of the debates between NP & R and Everett, but also larger criticisms against Everett's claims, apart from a body of other interesting research.

Anonymous said...

Ad Mihir Sharma,

It is Aspects that is relevant to the charge of retconning that was the topic of the discussion that you're referring to. The works you cite are not relevant to that issue.