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Linguists behaving badly

April 1, 2012

Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle of Higher Education article over the Daniel Everett-Noam Chomsky linguistics war over recursion has everything:  Christian missionaries, Bible translation, super-vicious academic fights, smear campaigns, television, charges of racism, native peoples, and, of course, linguistics.

The article is currently not behind a paywall, and I recommend reading it – it is well written and goes much deeper than the few excerpts I quote below:

[Daniel Everett,] a Christian missionary sets out to convert a remote Amazonian tribe. He lives with them for years in primitive conditions, learns their extremely difficult language, risks his life battling malaria, giant anacondas, and sometimes the tribe itself. In a plot twist, instead of converting them he loses his faith, morphing from an evangelist trying to translate the Bible into an academic determined to understand the people he’s come to respect and love.

Along the way, the former missionary discovers that the language these people speak doesn’t follow one of the fundamental tenets of linguistics, a finding that would seem to turn the field on its head, undermine basic assumptions about how children learn to communicate, and dethrone the discipline’s long-reigning king, who also happens to be among the most well-known and influential intellectuals of the 20th century.[..]

It’s worth asking whether Everett actually has it right. Answering that question is not straightforward, in part because it hinges on a bit of grammar that no one except linguists ever thinks about. It’s also made tricky by the fact that Everett is the foremost expert on this language, called Pirahã, and one of only a handful of outsiders who can speak it, making it tough for others to weigh in and leading his critics to wonder aloud if he has somehow rigged the results.

More than any of that, though, his claim is difficult to verify because linguistics is populated by a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both. Such divisions exist, to varying degrees, in all disciplines, but linguists seem uncommonly hostile. The word “brutal” comes up again and again, as do “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish.”[…]

The language Everett has focused on, Pirahã, is spoken by just a few hundred members of a hunter-gatherer tribe in a remote part of Brazil. Everett got to know the Pirahã in the late 1970s as an American missionary. With his wife and kids, he lived among them for months at a time, learning their language from scratch. He would point to objects and ask their names. He would transcribe words that sounded identical to his ears but had completely different meanings. His progress was maddeningly slow, and he had to deal with the many challenges of jungle living. His story of taking his family, by boat, to get treatment for severe malaria is an epic in itself.

His initial goal was to translate the Bible. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics along the way and, in 1984, spent a year studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an office near Chomsky’s. He was a true-blue Chomskyan then, so much so that his kids grew up thinking Chomsky was more saint than professor. “All they ever heard about was how great Chomsky was,” he says. He was a linguist with a dual focus: studying the Pirahã language and trying to save the Pirahã from hell. The second part, he found, was tough because the Pirahã are rooted in the present. They don’t discuss the future or the distant past. They don’t have a belief in gods or an afterlife. And they have a strong cultural resistance to the influence of outsiders, dubbing all non-Pirahã “crooked heads.” They responded to Everett’s evangelism with indifference or ridicule.[…]

The Pirahã language is remarkable in many respects. Entire conversations can be whistled, making it easier to communicate in the jungle while hunting. Also, the Pirahã don’t use numbers. They have words for amounts, like a lot or a little, but nothing for five or one hundred. Most significantly, for Everett’s argument, he says their language lacks what linguists call “recursion”—that is, the Pirahã don’t embed phrases in other phrases. They instead speak only in short, simple sentences. In a recursive language, additional phrases and clauses can be inserted in a sentence, complicating the meaning, in theory indefinitely.[…]

His paper might have received a shrug if Chomsky had not recently co-written a paper, published in 2002, that said (or seemed to say) that recursion was the single most important feature of human language. “In particular, animal communication systems lack the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language (based on humans’ capacity for recursion),” the authors wrote. Elsewhere in the paper, the authors wrote that the faculty of human language “at minimum” contains recursion. They also deemed it the “only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.”

In other words, Chomsky had finally issued what seemed like a concrete, definitive statement about what made human language unique, exposing a possible vulnerability.[…] It’s been said that if you want to make a name for yourself in modern linguistics, you have to either align yourself with Chomsky or seek to destroy him.[…]

Because the pace of academic debate is just this side of glacial, it wasn’t until June 2009 that the next major chapter in the saga was written. Three scholars who are generally allies of Chomsky published a lengthy paper in the journal Language dissecting Everett’s claims one by one. What he considered unique features of Pirahã weren’t unique. What he considered “gaps” in the language weren’t gaps. They argued this in part by comparing Everett’s recent paper to work he published in the 1980s, calling it, slightly snidely, his earlier “rich material.” Everett wasn’t arguing with Chomsky, they claimed; he was arguing with himself. Young Everett thought Pirahã had recursion. Old Everett did not.

Everett’s defense was, in so many words, to agree. Yes, his earlier work was contradictory, but that’s because he was still under Chomsky’s sway when he wrote it.[…] But now, after more years with the Pirahã, the scales had fallen from his eyes, and he saw the language on its own terms rather than those he was trying to impose on it.[…]

Critics haven’t just accused Everett of inaccurate analysis. He’s the sole authority on a language that he says changes everything. If he wanted to, they suggest, he could lie about his findings without getting caught. Some were willing to declare him essentially a fraud. That’s what one of the authors of the 2009 paper, Andrew Nevins, now at University College London, seems to believe.[…]

In 2007, Everett heard reports of a letter signed by Cilene Rodrigues, who is Brazilian, and who co-wrote the paper with [MIT professor David] Pesetsky and Nevins, that accuses him of racism. According to Everett, he got a call from a source informing him that Rodrigues, an honorary research fellow at University College London, had sent a letter to the organization in Brazil that grants permission for researchers to visit indigenous groups like the Pirahã. He then discovered that the organization, called FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, would no longer grant him permission to visit the Pirahã, whom he had known for most of his adult life and who remain the focus of his research.[..]

Chomsky hasn’t exactly risen above the fray. He told a Brazilian newspaper that Everett was a “charlatan.” In the documentary about Everett, Chomsky raises the possibility, without saying he believes it, that Everett may have faked his results.[…]

And what if the Pirahã don’t have recursion? […] Chomsky’s preferred response is to say that it doesn’t matter. In a lecture he gave last October at University College London, he referred to Everett’s work without mentioning his name, talking about those who believed that “exceptions to the generalizations are considered lethal.” He went on to say that a “rational reaction” to finding such exceptions “isn’t to say ‘Let’s throw out the field.’” Universal Grammar permits such exceptions. There is no problem.[…]

Except the 2002 paper on which Chomsky’s name appears. Pesetsky and others have backed away from that paper, arguing not that it was incorrect, but that it was “written in an unfortunate way” and that the authors were “trying to make certain things comprehensible about linguistics to a larger public, but they didn’t make it clear that they were simplifying.” Some say that Chomsky signed his name to the paper but that it was actually written by Marc Hauser, the former professor of psychology at Harvard University, who resigned after Harvard officials found him guilty of eight counts of research misconduct. (For the record, no one has suggested the alleged misconduct affected his work with Chomsky.)[…]

Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, is also vexed at how Chomsky and company have, in his view, played rhetorical sleight-of-hand to make their case. “They have retreated to such an extreme degree that it says really nothing,” he says. “If it has a sentence longer than three words then they’re claiming they were right. If that’s what they claim, then they weren’t claiming anything.” Pullum calls this move “grossly dishonest and deeply silly.”

In an effort to settle the dispute, Everett asked [Ted] Gibson, who holds a joint appointment in linguistics [and cognitive sciences] at MIT, to look at the data and reach his own conclusions. He didn’t provide Gibson with data he had collected himself because he knows his critics suspect those data have been cooked. Instead he provided him with sentences and stories collected by his missionary predecessor. That way, no one could object that it was biased.

In the documentary about Everett, handing over the data to Gibson is given tremendous narrative importance. Everett is the bearded, safari-hatted field researcher boating down a river in the middle of nowhere, talking and eating with the natives. Meanwhile, Gibson is the nerd hunched over his keyboard back in Cambridge, crunching the data, examining it with his research assistants, to determine whether Everett really has discovered something.  [However, Gibson has largely disagreed with Everett’s observations.]  For example, [Gibson has] confirmed that Pirahã lacks possessive recursion, phrases like “my brother’s mother’s house.” Also, there appear to be no conjunctions like “and” or “or.” In other instances, though, he’s found evidence that seems to undercut Everett’s claims—specifically, when it comes to noun phrases in sentences like “His mother, Itaha, spoke.” That is a simple sentence, but inserting the mother’s name is a hallmark of recursion.[…]

Everett thinks what Gibson has found is not recursion, but rather false starts, and he believes further research will back him up.[…]

As for Universal Grammar, some are already writing its obituary. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has stated flatly that “Universal Grammar is dead.” Two linguists, Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson, published a paper in 2009 titled “The Myth of Language Universals,” arguing that the “claims of Universal Grammar … are either empirically false, unfalsifiable, or misleading in that they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals.” Pullum has a similar take: “There is no Universal Grammar now, not if you take Chomsky seriously about the things he says. Gibson puts it even more harshly[…] “The question is, ‘What is it?’ How much is built-in and what does it do? There are no details,” he says. “It’s crazy to say it’s dead. It was never alive.”[…]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Morian permalink
    April 2, 2012 8:18 am

    You are wrong to call this “linguists behaving badly”. It is “reporter behaving badly”. Look at article again: what is in quotes and what is verified vs. what is not. All the bad is out of quote and unverified. Reporter has agenda/. Be careful what you believe.

  2. April 2, 2012 12:10 pm

    Morian, thanks for your comments.

  3. April 2, 2012 5:16 pm

    Jennifer Schuessler, for the NYT, reports the story here:

  4. April 2, 2012 6:30 pm

    Thanks Kurk. That article has a link to a publicly viewable copy of Everett’s scientific paper here. The paper includes reactions by Brent Berlin (U. Georgia), Marco Antonio Gonçalves (U. Federal de Rio de Janeiro), Paul Kay (ICSI, Berkeley), Stephen Levinson (Max Planck Inst.), Andrew Pawley (Australian Natl. U.), Alexandre Surrallès (CNRS), Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Inst.), Anna Wierzbicka (Australian Natl. U.), and a reply by Everett.

    For those with JSTOR access, the paper and some supplements (including an audio file) are available here.

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