Universal Grammar not so universal?

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Universal Grammar not so universal?

Post by etaxier » Mon May 14, 2007 3:39 am

Check it out:
The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? by John Colapinto, April 16, 2007 New Yorker

A missionary-turned-linguist named Dan Everett is attempting to convince his fellow linguists -- after studying a particularly strange language in South America -- that culture and language are more intricately connected than Noam Chomsky's "Universal Grammar" theory currently allows. This strange language, called Piraha, lacks recursion, a fundamental property of UG.

You guys might find the article interesting, since Chomsky's theory is by far the most dominant general theory of language acquisition around, with many applications and implications about cognitive function in general. So far it seems that no one has been able to rigorously account for Everett's findings by either modifying Universal Grammar or by producing a new theory.

When missionaries spent six years trying to learn the Piraha language, they found that "the phonemes were exceedingly difficult, featuring nasal whines and sharp intakes of breath, and sounds made by popping or flapping the lips. Individual words were hard to learn, since the Piraha habitually whittle nouns down to single syllables. Also confounding was the tonal nature of the language: the meanings of words depend on changes in pitch. (The words for "friend" and "enemy" differ only in the pitch of a single syllable.)"

The Piraha are intensely resistant to change; they refuse to take up farming and other updated methods of survival; they do not have art; they ignore moralistic fables as irrelevant; they do not speak or think in terms of states of being or any other abstractions (including colors -- they use metaphors relating to direct experience instead, e.g., that cup looks like blood). They do not make generalizations. There is no evidence of mass-scale mental retardation, as they are brilliant survivalists, are socially and morally capable, and avoid over-inbreeding. They do sometimes produce what we would call art objects, but only when those objects relate to their present experience (like a sculpture of an airplane that has just landed), and those objects are always immediately thrown away, as they don't think about the future any more than they do about the past. More than any other culture, the Piraha live in the moment.

I'd venture to suggest (this being the internet!) that Everett's findings serve to demonstrate that UG prohibits a more nuanced view of language as an integrated part of cognition, culture, and so on. A UG linguist might respond that Everett's case is an outlier, an exception to the rule set by thousands of languages that do have recursion and other necessary hierarchical components of UG. Such a Chomskyian response would have to acknowledge that while UG can describe most human languages, it has less bearing on cognitive function in general, as Chomsky previously believed. ("By studying the properties of natural languages, their structure, organization, and use, we may hope to gain some understanding of the specific characteristics of human intelligence. We may hope to learn something about human nature.") Instead, UG would be treated as a powerful tool for cultural study.

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Post by petew83 » Mon May 14, 2007 7:30 pm

Eric u should take a look at musicnovatory.com it's trying to do a Chomsky thing for music. I think a lot of it is locked up now though

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Post by EricWilson » Wed Jan 04, 2012 2:36 am

Universal grammar proposes a set of rules intended to explain language acquisition in child development. Most universal grammatical categories are logical.

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