Sunday, May 03, 2009

Language Studies and Political Correctness

Via Rod Dreher, I came across this interesting New Yorker article about a linguist named Dan Everett, who has extensively studied a Brazilian tribe called the Piraha. Everett has claimed that the Piraha's language lacks recursion, i.e., inserting phrases inside other phrases, such as "the girl who was wearing a red cloak ate a wolf."

What's interesting is how some professors reacted to Everett's claim:
Some scholars believe that Everett’s claim that the Pirahã do not use recursion is tantamount to calling them stupid. Stephen Levinson, the neo-Whorfian director of the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Netherlands, excoriated Everett in print for “having made the Pirahã sound like the mindless bearers of an almost subhumanly simple culture.” Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist at the Australian National University, was also troubled by the paper, and told me, “I think from the point of view of—I don’t know—human solidarity, human rights, and so on, it’s really very important to know that it’s a question that many people don’t dare to raise, whether we have the same cognitive abilities or not, we humans.”

Everett dismissed such criticisms, since he expressly states in the article that the unusual aspects of the Pirahã are not a result of mental deficiency. A Pirahã child removed from the jungle at birth and brought up in any city in the world, he said, would have no trouble learning the local tongue. Moreover, Everett pointed out, the Pirahã are supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to insure their continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game. “They can out-survive anybody, any other Indian in this region,” he said. “They’re very intelligent people. It never would occur to me that saying they lack things that Levinson or Wierzbicka predict they should have is calling them mindless idiots. ”
1. Note that for Everett's critics -- at least as represented here -- the truth of the matter doesn't seem to enter their thinking at all; all that matters is whether Everett's position seems appealing.

2. Ironically, it is Everett's critics, not Everett, who betray a sense of cultural superiority. Everett appreciates all of the cognitive tasks that the Piraha have indeed mastered -- tasks that are necessary for survival in their surroundings, and that few of us could even hope to accomplish. Everett's critics are the ones acting as if the Piraha's "cognitive abilities" are to be judged solely based on Western criteria and assumptions.


Blogger Stuart said...

Why does the structure of sentences in a language have any conceivable relationship to the users' mental ability? There are potentially infinite ways to put a language together. Lack of recursion only means that the descriptive portion (the red dress) would have to be in a new sentence, but it doesn't mean the concept that the girl has two referent phrases can't exist.

I just don't understand the attacks at all.

3:46 PM  

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