Monday night ABC1–”The Grammar of Happiness”

I watched this with interest.

The Grammar Of Happiness follows the story of Daniel Everett amongst the extraordinary ‘unconvertible’ Amazonian Pirahã tribe, a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers whose culture and outlook on life has taken the world of linguistics by storm.

As a young ambitious missionary three decades ago, Dan, a red-bearded towering American, decamped to the Amazon rain forest to save indigenous souls. His assignment was to translate the book of Mark into the tongue of the Pirahã, a people whose puzzling speech seemed unrelated to any other on Earth. What he learned during his time with the Pirahã led him to question the very foundations of his own deep beliefs.

As a ‘born again’ atheist, Dan divorced his devout Christian wife and became estranged from his children. Having lost faith and family, his new life is dominated by the desire to leave behind his legacy. Everett’s most controversial claim is that the Pirahã language lacks ‘recursion’ – the ability to build an infinite number of sentences within sentences, regarded by Chomsky-ists as perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of human language.

The Grammar Of Happiness interweaves the tale of Everett’s attempt to return to the Pirahã with the story of his personal journey since the sixties – from drug-taking musician to evangelical missionary to rabblerousing academic. It’s the adventurous tale of losing faith but finding happiness.


Photo by Daniel Everett – linked to source

See also Angry Words: Will one researcher’s discovery deep in the Amazon destroy the foundation of modern linguistics?

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 feels like a movie, and it may in fact turn into one—there’s a script and producers on board. It’s already a documentary that will air in May on the Smithsonian Channel. A play is in the works in London. And the man who lived the story, Daniel Everett, has written two books about it. His 2008 memoir Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, is filled with Joseph Conrad-esque drama. The new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, which is lighter on jungle anecdotes, instead takes square aim at Noam Chomsky, who has remained the pre-eminent figure in linguistics since the 1960s, thanks to the brilliance of his ideas and the force of his personality.

But before any Hollywood premiere, 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….

And How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in Pirahã?

His life among his fellow linguists, however, has been far less idyllic, and debate about his scholarship is poised to boil over anew, thanks to his ambitious new book, “Language: The Cultural Tool,” and a forthcoming television documentary that presents an admiring view of his research among the Pirahã along with a darkly conspiratorial view of some of his critics.

In 2005 Dr. Everett shot to international prominence with a paper claiming that he had identified some peculiar features of the Pirahã language that challenged Noam Chomsky’s influential theory, first proposed in the 1950s, that human language is governed by “universal grammar,” a genetically determined capacity that imposes the same fundamental shape on all the world’s tongues.

The paper, published in the journal Current Anthropology, turned him into something of a popular hero but a professional lightning rod, embraced in the press as a giant killer who had felled the mighty Chomsky but denounced by some fellow linguists as a fraud, an attention seeker or worse, promoting dubious ideas about a powerless indigenous group while refusing to release his data to skeptics…

And Chomsky, the Pirahã, and turduckens of the Amazon.

The Pirahã maelstrom has had two vortices: recursion, and the language–culture connection. Recursion promises/threatens to slay Chomsky, who argues that much of grammar is innate. The language–culture connection promises/threatens to resurrect Whorf, who argues that language shapes how we think. I work on the latter and I’ve written (here, here) on why I choose not to work on the former. For now, I’ll concentrate Chomsky and recursion, because, truth be told, the “Pirahã slays Chomsky” headlines seem to me like errors in elementary reasoning. In other words, the kind of “because” abuse that this blog is named after…

Why does recursion matter to Chomsky? Well, one of the ways to think about what he is up to (and how I explain my work at dinner parties) is to pretend the brain is a kind of computer, like an iphone. (Sorry for mixing metaphors, computers with food. But, well, iphones are apples.) Obviously, we share lots of our brain hardware with other animals. But other animals apparently don’t have anything like human languages, not even the vocal, gregarious, communicative ones, not even primates formally schooled in sign languages by eager experimenters. Chomsky has co-written that the crucial difference might be that our hardware at some point became capable of recursion.*…

My iphone tags my photos to say where I took them. It tells me what’s nearby (cafés, restaurants, museums, shops, …). It shows me where I am on maps and how to get to where I want to go and which of my friends are nearby. My mother never tags her photos, she never wants to know what’s around her, she never displays herself as a blip on a map, and, if she wants to know if you’re nearby, she calls. But that’s a fact about how my mother has set her iphone up. All location services are off. But that doesn’t mean her iphone can’t provide that information. The computational capacity of our phones is the same, her configuration is just different.

If the Pirahã don’t have turducken sentences, that’s a fact about how their language is configured. It’s not a fact about their hardware. If you kidnapped a Pirahã child (a practice inflicted on numerous indigenous communities) and raised it speaking Portuguese—or, less horrifically, if you exposed it to enough Portuguese for it to grow up bilingual—you’d expect them to be just as capable of learning Portuguese as any other child they were raised with. When Chomsky is concerned with recursion, he is concerned with hardware. The claim is about what brains can learn, not what a particular brain has learned. A dearth of turduckens of the Amazon just doesn’t matter…


And an account by Everett himself at The Edge.

I think that the way that Chomskyan theories developed over the last 50 years has made it completely untestable now. It’s not clear what usefulness there is in the notion of universal grammar. It appeals to the public at large, and it used to appeal to linguists, but as you work more and more with it, there’s no way to test it—I can’t think of a single experiment—in fact I asked Noam this in an e-mail, what is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it? What prediction does it make? And he said, It doesn’t make any predictions; it’s a field of study, like biology. 

Now that is not quite right. No scientist can get by without believing in biology, but it’s quite possible to study human language without believing in universal grammar. So UG is really not a field of study in the same sense. I think the history of science shows that the people who develop a theory and who are responsible for the development of the theory are rarely the people who come forward and say: whoops, I was wrong, we need to actually work at it another way, this guy over here had the right idea. It’s rare for that to happen. Noam is not likely to say this.

I want to have well-designed experiments to test my claims on recursion; I want to have mores studies of the Pirahã grammar from people working outside my influence. The more people who can look at this independently, the more likely it is that others are going to start to believe this, because I think it’s going to be shown to be correct. If it’s wrong, that’s also important. The tests have to be done, and then if there is evidence that I might be onto something, we have to look at other languages. And other languages in similar situations where they’ve been cut off for one reason or another from outside influences for long periods of time. And re-examine those languages in light of the possibility that languages can vary more than we thought. And maybe the categories that we have aren’t the best categories.

We need more fieldwork. Linguists have gotten away from fieldwork over the last 50 years. There’s more interest in endangered languages now than there was a few years ago, but there’s just now beginning to be a resurgence of the field work ethic among linguists, and the idea that we can’t figure out everything that we need to know just by looking at grammars that have been written, without going and seeing the language in the cultural context.

And that’s really the biggest research question that I have for the future: What evidence is there that culture can exercise an architectonic effect on the grammar —that it can actually shape the very nature of grammar, and not simply trigger parameters.

In  my years teaching English and English as a Second Language I can conclude that for my purposes Chomsky was pretty much useless. In a paper I wrote for a UTS TESOL course in 1998 I found myself scratching to find anything really relevant to my understanding of how language works and how it may be taught and learned.  It has always surprised me that Chomsky so dominates linguistics when, from my perspective, there are far more interesting and useful linguists all over the shop. For example:

In fact it is fair to say that in Monday night’s documentary Chomsky comes across as a bit of a prick. 

At the same time despite his genuine knowledge of his Amazonians and their language and culture, Everett seemed to me more than a bit naive. It was that tired old nature/nurture, instinct/culture Sapir-Whorf debate in yet another guise. And a bit of an overdose of noble savagery.

I mean, take all the guff about the Pirahã not having tense. So?

For example, say we have the verb ‘go’ but no such thing as went, gone, am going, will go, and etc. Nothing but ‘go’.

  • I go Beijing.
  • She go Beijing.
  • We go Beijing.

How would we try to express tense and time in English under these circumstances? Probably like this, which is one way Chinese does it:

  • Tomorrow I go Beijing.
  • Right now she go Beijing.
  • Yesterday we go Beijing.

Adverbs! Instead of inflecting verbs, the Chinese language relies heavily on the use of adverbs to communicate what English and many other languages do with different verb tenses. And looking at the literal translations in the following examples, you realize that English could probably also get by without verb inflections in a pinch…

Millions of Chinese seem to get by without tense too, nor would I say that this makes the Chinese content to live in an eternal present.

And the Pirahã don’t use numbers.  I was about to say neither do/did Australian Aboriginal languages – “one”, “two”, “heaps” being one way of putting it – but apparently this isn’t true.

Even so, when it comes to Chomsky – and even Pinker – I find myself drawn rather to the anthropological/sociolinguistic varieties of linguistics – the ones I find more interesting and certainly, from the language teaching point of view, more useful.

I must chase up The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson. Oh, and I did enjoy the documentary.