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June 13, 2007 11:00 PM   Subscribe

Recursion and Human Thought - Why the Piraha don't have numbers
posted by Gyan (47 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
[previously]
posted by Gyan at 11:00 PM on June 13, 2007


Well, really humans have a practical depth in terms of how deep sentences can recurse. And it's not even that deep really.
posted by delmoi at 11:15 PM on June 13, 2007


Some disagree.

Everett (2005) has claimed that the grammar of Pirahã is exceptional in displaying "inexplicable gaps", that these gaps follow from an alleged cultural principle restricting communication to "immediate experience", and that this principle has "severe" consequences for work on Universal Grammar. We argue against each of these claims. Relying on the available documentation and descriptions of the language (especially the rich material in Everett (1986; 1987b)), we argue that many of the exceptional grammatical "gaps" supposedly characteristic of Pirahã are misanalyzed by Everett (2005) and are neither gaps nor exceptional among the world's languages. We find no evidence, for example, that Pirahã lacks embedded clauses, and in fact find strong syntactic and semantic evidence in favor of their existence in Pirahã. Likewise, we find no evidence that Pirahã lacks quantifiers, as claimed by Everett (2005). Furthermore, most of the actual properties of the Pirahã constructions discussed by Everett (for example, the ban on prenominal possessor recursion and the behavior of wh-constructions) are familiar from languages whose speakers lack the cultural restrictions attributed to the Pirahã. Finally, following mostly Gonçalves (1993; 2000; 2001), we also question some of the empirical claims about Pirahã culture advanced by Everett in primary support of the "immediate experience" restriction. We are left with no evidence of a causal relation between culture and grammatical structure. Pirahã grammar contributes to ongoing research into the nature of Universal Grammar, but presents no unusual challenge, much less a "severe" one.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:00 AM on June 14, 2007


i_am_joe's_spleen: he talks about the people who disagree, and gives a response to them, late in the linked article.
posted by grubby at 12:16 AM on June 14, 2007


This was an amazing read.

I especially like that some of his peers have essentially labeled him a racist. What a bunch of maroons. This is fascinating work.

On another note, I have often wondered what it would be like to bring somebody from the primitive past into the modern world and show him/her all of the amazing technological things we have accomplished. I frequently think about this when I am flying to where ever it is I am going in a given week, as I'm looking out the window at the tops of the clouds. So really I think in a way I would actually be kind of crushed if I took this Piraha in a jetliner and his reaction was, "meh," as portrayed in the article.
posted by fusinski at 12:51 AM on June 14, 2007


Actually the article doesn't explain anything about why the Piraha don't have numbers at all.
posted by delmoi at 12:53 AM on June 14, 2007


delmoi -

----
"One prediction that this makes in Pirahã follows from the suggestions of people who worked on number theory and the nature of number in human speech: that counting systems—numerical systems—are based on recursion, and that this recursion follows from recursion in the language. This predicts in turn that if a language lacked recursion, then that language would also lack a number system and a counting system. I've claimed for years that the Pirahã don't have numbers or accounting, and this has been verified in..."
----

So, the putative reason is that the Piraha language doesn't employ recursion and hence cannot introduce numbers.
posted by Gyan at 1:16 AM on June 14, 2007


grubby: sure. In fact if you read to the end of the link, there is a further link to Pinker (a guy we often cite with interest here at Metafilter) saying "I don't believe the strong version of his claims".

I think it's important when there's just one person making extraordinary claims to weigh them with the criticisms of other experts. I'm not an expert in this field, just an interested amateur, and if I had to make a bet, in the absence of expertise of my own, it would be odds against Everett, until other experts side with him.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:20 AM on June 14, 2007


Well, he says "The tones are part of what make it so difficult for people who haven't had a lot of linguistic training, but it's just like Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Korean, in the fact that the tones are very important to the meanings of the words," and this is wrong because Korean is not a tonal language, and in general the entire article smacks of a guy who either doesn't really know what he's talking about or, more likely considering all his education, is waaaay oversimplifying things for a lay readership.. Fewer words for colors and different ways of counting are hardly novel and, inbreeding being the cause of the differences in language? It reads like a joke.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 1:32 AM on June 14, 2007


Yeah, no tones in Korean. That's a pretty damning gaffe, but I'm still going to read the article carefully. I'm curious, at least, I suppose.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:54 AM on June 14, 2007


But how many different words for snow do they have? That's the big question.
posted by mmoncur at 1:58 AM on June 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Jesus H Christ, why don't commenters at least read the article?

BuddhaInABucket: Fewer words for colors and different ways of counting are hardly novel and, inbreeding being the cause of the differences in language?

The claim is that there are NO words for colors and NO numbers, not 'fewer'.

----
"Peter Gordon and I were colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, and Peter did his Ph.D. at MIT in psychology, with a strong concern for numerosity. We were talking, and I said, there's a group that doesn't count—I work with a group that doesn't count—and he found that very difficult to believe, so he wanted to go do experiments. He went, and I helped him get going; he did the experiments, but his explanation for the reason that the Pirahã don't count is that they don't have words for numbers. They only have one to many. I claim that in fact they don't have any numbers."
----


----
"It also doesn't explain their lack of color words
...
They refer to some unpublished studies by Steven Sheldon in which it is claimed that Pirahã has color words and number words
...
If you take the color words, Sheldon did in fact claim that the Pirahã had color words. But if you look at them, 'mii sai', which he translated as 'red', means 'like blood'. All of the color words in fact are just descriptions. This looks like blood, this looks like water, this looks like the sky, or this looks like a fire, or something like this.
"
----


----
Some people have suggested that since this a small society it's not unreasonable to hypothesize that there's a lot of inbreeding, and that this has made one particular gene much more prevalent in the society.
...
I don't think they have a closed gene pool, even though it's a small group of people. River traders come up frequently, and it's not uncommon for Pirahã to trade sex for different items off the boat that they want. So I don't think that genetics is relevant at all here.

---
posted by Gyan at 2:05 AM on June 14, 2007


Re the colour words, Gyan, I immediately thought of this passage in the article I linked to above:

---
... many glosses appear to reflect etymology rather than current meaning. For example, CA offers the gloss 'cloth arm' where HAL has 'hammock', and insists that the Pirahã rendering of 'all' actually means 'big'. As Wierzbicka (2005)
notes in her commentary on CA, "in using such glosses, Everett exoticizes the language rather than identifying its genuinely distinctive features. To say that ti ’ogi means, literally, 'my bigness' (rather than 'we') is like saying that in English to understand means, literally, 'to stand under.' To deny that hi ’ogi means 'all' is to make a similar mistake."

This is in fact a point that Everett himself stressed in his earlier work, with specific reference to the linguistic intuitions of the Pirahã themselves. In setting the stage for a iscussion of "compound words", Everett in HAL offered the following observations:

"The criterion used to classify the examples to follow as compound words rather than merely
phrasal constructions is semantic. For example, [...] the syntagmeme xabagi soixaoxoisai may
be understood as 'toucan beak' or 'saw', according to the context. However, the majority of
speakers who, for example, ask me for a saw (or other instrument with a compound name) find
it very amusing and surprising when I make some sort of remark relating 'saws' and 'toucan
beaks'. In my opinion, they are not even aware of the relationship unless they stop to reflect for
a moment." [HAL 322]

The paragraph from HAL just quoted is followed by a presentation of Pirahã N-N compounds with similar properties: 'foot handle' (= 'ladder'); 'bow vine' (= 'bowstring'); and 'foot leather' (= 'shoe'); as well as N-A compounds glossed 'thorn crooked' (= 'scissors') and 'mouth big' (= 'type of bass (fish))'. In CA, Everett overlooks these lessons from HAL, without comment. Neither in CA nor in any other papers known to us does Everett offer any defense of the etymologizing (and exoticizing) glosses offered in CA.
---

I cannot help but wonder if the same "exoticising" urge is at work here. I can think of colour words in English that are essentially references to some other coloured entity (orange, gold). Etymologically black, white and green come from "like burnt things", "like shiny things", and "like growing things" respectively. (source, possibly unreliable itself but the closest thing I have to hand).

Maybe this guy is right, but I'd be way more impressed by some linky evidence from other linguists.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:29 AM on June 14, 2007


i_am_joe's_spleen: This is in fact a point that Everett himself stressed in his earlier work

----
When I saw this, I wrote the three of them, and I said, you've put me in the interesting situation of pitting Dan Everett at 55 against Dan Everett at 26. Because, I said, all the data you use are my data. So I'll just have to explain why when I wrote my doctoral dissertation I didn't know as much about Pirahã as I know now.
----

----
David Pesetsky is a..., Andrew Nevins was a..., and Cilene Rodrigues is a...
They decided that they would write a reply to my article. The interesting thing is that I'm the main source of data on Pirahã. Now, the best way to check out what I'm saying would be to get some research funds to go down there and do experiments and test this stuff. But what they decided to do was to look at my doctoral dissertation, and where I describe the grammar of Pirahã, and find inconsistencies between my doctoral dissertation and what I'm saying now. And there are some. And I say in the Current Anthropology article that there are inconsistencies, and that the 2005 article supersedes my previous work. And all of those decisions to change my mind on this or that analytical point were based on a lot of thought about what I had said previously and how it compared to my current knowledge.

My doctoral dissertation was written when I was using a certain set of grammatical categories common among most linguists, and I did my very best to make Pirahã come out and look like a 'normal' language. So there are a couple of small examples of things that look like recursion in my doctoral dissertation. In fact I call them that. So the authors of the rebuttal dwell on these discrepancies. And then they try to counter my claims in the paper.

----
posted by Gyan at 2:43 AM on June 14, 2007


i_am_joe's_spleen: I can think of colour words in English that are essentially references to some other coloured entity

Sure, that's how they come into being. But many English color words are stripped of their etymological connotations in contemporary cultural memory i.e. green, yellow, for some colors, the association is weak i.e. orange and for a few, it remains strong, even direct i.e. gold. Everett's claim essentially is that all references to the color attribute among Pirahas fall in the third schema, such that their language can't support this communication - "gold is a warmer color than blue".
posted by Gyan at 2:55 AM on June 14, 2007


Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus?

This part bugs me. Someone explain.
posted by Citizen Premier at 4:26 AM on June 14, 2007


They don't have numbers because they're too busy eating capybaras to worry about things like maths.

Oh shit, Pirahã. Well they're just lazy.
posted by longbaugh at 4:40 AM on June 14, 2007


When I first started working with the Pirahã, I realized that I needed more linguistics if I was going to understand their language. When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?

Thank you, Pirahã, for that most awesome response to religious gab.
posted by odinsdream at 5:24 AM on June 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


They believe all coercion is wrong, they have absolute confidence in themselves, they are totally practical. Oh, and they don't use numbers. Why does this remind me of John Varley's Persistance of Vision?
posted by localroger at 5:45 AM on June 14, 2007


Ok. So the no numbers thing is crazy. But when he says they don't have recursion, he really means they can't recurse inside the sentence. Even with the house example, the Piraha language yields the same "complexity and creativity" as any other language.

Look at it this way:
The Piraha use a while loop with a scratch variable.
Everybody else uses a recursive function.

They're really just saving on stack space.
posted by noble_rot at 5:52 AM on June 14, 2007 [8 favorites]


So, the putative reason is that the Piraha language doesn't employ recursion and hence cannot introduce numbers.

Thats a theory, one with no evidence. There is a difference between answering a question and daydreaming about it.
posted by delmoi at 6:13 AM on June 14, 2007


Don't be offended that he messed up and called Korean a tone-based language. A mistake, yes, but not the point of the article. To it's credit anyway, Korean has another contrast in it's sound system that is relatively difficult for speakers of English, and many other languages of the world to learn.

The whole article itself pretty damn good, and one of the better ones I've read about the Pirahã (aside from another more scholarly-type article the same author wrote). It's nice to see someone finally try to answer the these questions of WHY do the Pirahã lack numbers and why their language and culture has these various characteristics, instead of articles repeating the same thing-- that's the old news as far as I'm concerned.
posted by taursir at 6:17 AM on June 14, 2007


see also: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
posted by exlotuseater at 6:25 AM on June 14, 2007


delmoi: Thats a theory, one with no evidence.

Besides the point. You complained about there being no explanation. There's one, even if you don't agree with it.
posted by Gyan at 6:41 AM on June 14, 2007


Citizen Premier, yes, it does seem rather worrying. I can't think of a sustainable reading except that "colour" is a translation of a question about racial type. "Does Jesus look like you or like me?"

I'd like to know though.
posted by howfar at 6:48 AM on June 14, 2007


But if you look at them, 'mii sai', which he translated as 'red', means 'like blood'. All of the color words in fact are just descriptions

Like orange, purple, etc? I'm guessing that's the origin of most color words, if you go back far enough.

If they always refer to things that are red as mii sai, and not something else, then 'mii sai' MEANS red, doesn't it?
posted by empath at 6:52 AM on June 14, 2007


I'm going to attempt to shorten this essay to one sentence:

"These people don't understand Jesus so there must be something missing in their language and culture."
posted by empath at 6:56 AM on June 14, 2007


Here's more from a recent discussion on the Linguist List, including a rejoinder from dan Everett.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:03 AM on June 14, 2007


empath, well no, not necessarily. According to his argument, the use of the term 'mii sai' never leads to the creation of a universal concept of red. This thing may be 'mii sai' and that thing may be also, but there is no category of objects that are 'like blood'.

On preview:

And you obviously haven't read the essay if you think that this is a Christian attack on 'primitives'. One of the most amusing points about this thing is that, effectively, *they* converted *him*. He started off as a Christian believer, and was converted to atheism by these hard headed empiricists.
posted by howfar at 7:03 AM on June 14, 2007


empath, you might want to read this before you treat us to any more of your oh-so-clever attempts to tritely summarise the article.
posted by flashboy at 7:14 AM on June 14, 2007



Besides the point. You complained about there being no explanation. There's one, even if you don't agree with it.


I complained about there being no true answer, while your FPP was written as though there was one. The article itself was very interesting, but I think you mischaracterized it.
posted by delmoi at 7:15 AM on June 14, 2007


Look at it this way:
The Piraha use a while loop with a scratch variable.
Everybody else uses a recursive function.


i've never understood why it was so convincing that just because Chomsky can come up with some (arguably) universal descriptive grammar that this says anything about the actual structure of the human brain.

basically, so what if the Piraha don't fit into the category of Chomskian languages...

and what do the concepts of number and recursion have to do with linguistics?

do linguists really believe that the foundation of mathematics is language?
posted by geos at 7:15 AM on June 14, 2007


delmoi: I complained about there being no true answer, while your FPP was written as though there was one.

You wrote - Actually the article doesn't explain anything about why the Piraha don't have numbers at all.

That superficially indicates the lack of any attempt at explanation. What you mean(t) to say is more unambiguously conveyed by - The article doesn't convincingly explain anything about why the Piraha don't have numbers at all.]

And all I did was simply present the article title and subtitle on the front page. I didn't provide my own editorial input.
posted by Gyan at 7:25 AM on June 14, 2007


I think the obvious thing to take away is that they will just tell you that there is a plate of beans and not necessarily inform you as to how many beans there are.
posted by longbaugh at 7:43 AM on June 14, 2007


This article was FASCINATING. I wonder if the parana communicate emotions at all? Obviously they understand the concept of laughter, the New Yorker article talks about them staying up all night, talking and laughing, but do they tell their children that they love them or show them affection? Do they get angry with each other, if they do - how do they resolve the conflicts? Violence? Talking? Something else? I also wonder about the structure of the society, is there a single chieftain or are decisions made by the community, etc... Do they have any rituals? Funeral rites etc...

Also the slide show to the New Yorker article has some really great pictures in it, I especially liked the close up portraits of the Parana man and woman.
posted by youthenrage at 7:47 AM on June 14, 2007


John's brother's second house is on an island in a lake on an island.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:59 AM on June 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


BuddhaInABucket and Joseph Gurl, at least one dialect of Korean (Kyungsang) does have tone. Here's the best/quickest online reference I could find: [pdf]. Everett may or may not have been thinking of this dialect when he mentioned Korean as a tone language.

Also, the article mentions Peter Gordon. He gave a job talk at IU last year (or the year before), and it was terrible. Easily one of the worst two or three academic talks I've ever heard, and I've heard some stinkers. Of course, this doesn't really bear on the issue at hand. Just though I'd sling some mud.

Finally, in response to geos:

i've never understood why it was so convincing that just because Chomsky can come up with some (arguably) universal descriptive grammar that this says anything about the actual structure of the human brain.

It doesn't. Generative grammar isn't about the brain. Also, generative grammar is not merely descriptive.

basically, so what if the Piraha don't fit into the category of Chomskian languages...

Generative grammar has been very, very successful so far describing a wide range of linguistic facts. If a language is found that violates otherwise universal aspects of human language, the theory needs to be revised. Recursion is a very important part of generative syntax, and it is assumed to be universal. Some have argued that recursion is the only thing that makes human language unique, in fact.

and what do the concepts of number and recursion have to do with linguistics?

Possibly nothing, but if having numbers requires recursion and if recursion is fundamental to human language...

do linguists really believe that the foundation of mathematics is language?

Maybe Lakoff does, but, no, not generally.
posted by noahpoah at 8:39 AM on June 14, 2007


geos: I think you've got that backwards. The foundation of language is math. That's why the (apparent) lack of numbers & recursion is puzzling.
posted by scalefree at 8:41 AM on June 14, 2007


i wonder what Daniel Tammet would make of Pirahã. really.

fascinating article - refreshing mixture of science and humanity.
posted by progosk at 11:10 AM on June 14, 2007


Interesting stuff
posted by Smedleyman at 12:41 PM on June 14, 2007


This example doesn't work for me.

Pirahã doesn't have expressions like "John's brother's house". You can say "John's house", you can say "John's brother", but if you want to say "John's brother's house", you have to say "John has a brother. This brother has a house". They have to say it in separate sentences.

So the work that the recursive phrase was doing is performed by the "this." We're still building up a single conceptual entity that displays a hierarchy of internal relationships among its component parts. So this process still seems "recursive" to me (at least in a broad sense). Don't we still end up with the same concept in end (e.g., the house that belongs to the brother of John)?
posted by treepour at 1:24 PM on June 14, 2007


Gyan, maybe the younger Everett was right and the older Everett is wrong. That happens too.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:35 PM on June 14, 2007


Paging languagehat?
posted by OverlappingElvis at 2:32 PM on June 14, 2007


Language Log on this topic: 1, 2
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:08 PM on June 14, 2007


Even better.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:09 PM on June 14, 2007


Did I misread, or wasn't the other point about their colour words that not only were they descriptive comparisons, they weren't fixed either, like our 'orange' is? This time they might compare red to blood, the next to a berry.
posted by Abiezer at 7:20 PM on June 14, 2007


As a quite interesting aside to this I might recommend Ian Watson's "The Embedding" - a linguistic theory sci-fi book from the mid-1970's. The parallels to this article are actually quite surprising. Do check it out if you can find a copy...
posted by longbaugh at 8:24 AM on June 15, 2007


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