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Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?
Thread poster: Vito Smolej

Vito Smolej
Germany
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English to Slovenian
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Jan 10, 2009

from New Yorker - A Reporter at Large - INTERPRETER

Dan Everett believes that Pirahã undermines Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar. Photograph by Martin Schoeller.

One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering tributary of the Amazon. On the bank above us were some thirty people—short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations. It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it. Everett eventually abandoned Christianity, but he and Keren have spent the past thirty years, on and off, living with the tribe, and in that time they have learned Pirahã as no other Westerners have.

“Xaói hi gáísai xigíaihiabisaoaxái ti xabiíhai hiatíihi xigío hoíhi,” Everett said in the tongue’s choppy staccato, introducing me as someone who would be “staying for a short time” in the village. The men and women answered in an echoing chorus, “Xaói hi goó kaisigíaihí xapagáiso.”

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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How many vowels... Jan 10, 2009

Vito Smolej wrote:
from New Yorker - A Reporter at Large - INTERPRETER
...and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that...


In my book, two sounds of different tone (where the tone is significant) qualify as two vowels. And IMO two sounds of different length (where the length is significant) count as two vowels or consonants. The same goes for stress -- even in my own language, a change in stress results in a change in spelling.

Otherwise one might as well regard voiced and unvoiced versions of a sound (eg B and P) to be a single sound.


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Vito Smolej
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it should be phonemes, vowels and consonants are for the normal reader... Jan 10, 2009

Samuel Murray wrote:
In my book, two sounds of different tone (where the tone is significant) qualify as two vowels.

... and once you get as far as transcribing and classifying them, it gets more and more slippery. One lesson for me in this sense was "The Gods must be crazy" and the language of that Kalahari tribe - it flowed like pin balls getting spilt out of a basket.

[EDIT]Samuel's comment addresses the first paragraph of an 14pp article. So no wonder, it does not address the main issues, like Universal Grammar, Chomskian orthodoxy, grammatical recursion and its sources etc. While it's nice to talk about how many consonants and vowels it takes, I would appreciate if the complete material is read first before the thread gets lost in trivia.


[Edited at 2009-01-10 19:45 GMT]


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Daniel García
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Is it universally accepted? Jan 10, 2009


In my book, two sounds of different tone (where the tone is significant) qualify as two vowels. And IMO two sounds of different length (where the length is significant) count as two vowels or consonants. The same goes for stress -- even in my own language, a change in stress results in a change in spelling.

Otherwise one might as well regard voiced and unvoiced versions of a sound (eg B and P) to be a single sound.


I would have to check my books on phonetics but I think I remember that vowels are classified by their articulation (what happens to the sound after it has been produced by the vocal chords).

In that sense, length and tone (pitch) are not part of the articulation and are not used to distinguish vowels.

This does not mean that length and tone are not phonologically relevant features. You could have three vowels and many more phonemes out of them.

To put an example, in German you can have short and long vowels (like "Stadt" and "Staat").

Traditionally, I would say that they are considered one vowel (with different lengths) but two phonemes.

The fact that they are written with one "a" or with two "aa" is irrelevant because this is just a convention.

At least that's the way I remember I studied it some time ago... Maybe modern linguists now include length and pitch as differentiating feature for vowels...

Anyway, thanks Vito for the article. It is very interesting! It reminded me of the whistling language used in the Canary Islands.

There is a Wikipedia article on this as well...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirahã_language

Apparently, they don't use numbers either...

Daniel


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
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Back to the topic Jan 10, 2009

Vito Smolej wrote:
So no wonder, [Samuel's post] does not address the main issues, like Universal Grammar, Chomskian orthodoxy, grammatical recursion and its sources etc.


Actually, I did read much of it before I posted, but I decided that since you quoted the first part of it, and since most people probably won't read it, it may be safest to comment on the portion quoted. As it happens, the article doesn't seem to have "main issues" -- it jumps around quite a bit.

But let's talk about grammar recursion. Here is a group of 350 people who have been inbreeding for thousands of years. They can't count to three and they can't make long sentences. As for Chomsky, a couple of decades ago, this guy changed the face of linguistic theory. But, as we all know, it's publish or perish. So he's been publishing stuff ever since, and one of his latest ideas (about grammar recursion being present in all human languages) doesn't hold true for this tribe's language.

It's actually an interesting piece of writing, if you skip the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo bits. Or perhaps I'm just not an intellectual.

This article is about many, many things. What exactly do you want to discuss?


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Gerard de Noord  Identity Verified
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That's a very long article Jan 10, 2009

Thank you Vito,

For drawing our attention to this important article. I have just finished it and I will probably read it again tomorrow. The language of the Pirahã seems to lack grammatical ways to express recursion and other things we (or Chomsky) take for granted.

Those bible translators will have a hard time translating Genesis starting with and beyond:
Gen 1:13 And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

Just kidding. I once read a story about an Amazon tribe that used 'towards the Andes" for 'left' and 'opposite of the Andes' for 'right'. Members of the tribe were invited to the US and somehow they never switched up (their) left and right, Of course sitting on God's right hand would have depended on the position of their Bible...

I actually think that trying to translate the Bible in all known languages is a very honourable endeavour that's helping linguistics as a science immensely. Chomsky shall always be remembered for his many contributions to this field, like Freud and Keynes in their fields, but live and science goes on.

Regards,
Gerard


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Gerard de Noord  Identity Verified
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Maybe Vito just wanted to give a link to good article Jan 10, 2009

Samuel Murray wrote:
This article is about many, many things. What exactly do you want to discuss?


Hi Samuel,

For me, personally, it was a joy to see Chomsky's theory being refuted. I'm just a word monger, with few academic skills, but I've had to study Chomsky's teachings for two years and, twenty years ago, my first thought, then, was that language couldn't be that simple. Well, it isn't, and MT would have been better if his theory would have been better.

Regards,
Gerard

[Edited at 2009-01-10 23:11 GMT]


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Vito Smolej
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"Maybe Vito just wanted to give a link to good article" Jan 11, 2009

as the old Fritz decided regarding the religious freedom in Prussia "Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen": I am for any subject here that helps and that's interesting.

BUT...

...suddenly, while answering the umpteenth TRADOS question ("I did X and Y happened - Help!"), I was horrified to see my hands turn into paws, with a start of white furry hair on them, and when I looked into the mirror, a lab mouse (standard wild type I assume) with sad, knowing eyes was staring back at me, saying: there's MORE to you and your colleagues than running those TRADOS labyrinths. Watched me for a second and then added, with a biting undertone, "SMARTEN UP" ... and then I woke up.


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Nadja Balogh  Identity Verified
Germany
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Thank you! Jan 11, 2009

Hi Vito,

Thanks for posting this - it was extremely interesting to read - and thank you most of all for the perfect timing: I would NEVER have read this huge article on a working day .

Nadja


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