Culture, not biology, shapes human language

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    Apr 26, 2012 6:52 PM GMT
    There's a lot I can say about this topic, but I'll just post the article itself first.

    Original article:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/04/24/151310809/culture-not-biology-shapes-language?sc=fb&cc=fp


    There's no language gene.

    There's no innate language organ or module in the human brain dedicated to the production of grammatical language.

    There are no meaningful human universals when it comes to how people construct sentences to communicate with each other. Across the languages of the world (estimated to number 6,000-8,000), nouns, verbs, and objects are arranged in sentences in different ways as people express their thoughts. The powerful force behind this variability is culture.

    So goes the argument in Language: The Cultural Tool, the new book I'm reading by Daniel Everett. Next week, I'll have more to say about the book itself; this week, I want to explore how Everett's years of living among the Pirahã Indians of Amazonian Brazil helped shape his conclusions — and why those conclusions matter.

    The Pirahã are hunter-gatherers who live along the Maici River in Brazil's Amazon region. They fish, gather manioc and hunt in the forest. As is true with any human society, Pirahã communities are socially complex.

    Everett first showed up among the Pirahãs as a missionary associated with the Summer Institute for Linguistics (SIL), with the goal of converting the natives to Christianity by translating the Bible into the local language. He left many years later as an atheist, knowing that the Pirahãs "were not in the market for a new worldview."

    In between, Everett found that the Pirahãs have no words for "please," "thank you," "you're welcome" or "I'm sorry." They have no color words, but instead deploy phrases such as "it is temporarily being immature" for green. They have a limited kinship term system, one that does not distinguish between parent and grandparent or brother and sister. And their sentences lack recursion. This means there are no embedded clauses, as in the English sentence "Bring me the fish that Mary caught."

    In his previous book Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, Everett explained that the Pirahã culture drives the Pirahã linguistic system. For example, the language lacks recursion because of what he calls the principle of immediate experience. The Pirahãs don't discuss events that are not experienced by the speaker or by someone alive during the speaker's lifetime. (They do believe in spirits, but to them, the spirits are real and thus directly experienced.)

    The Pirahãs would not say "Bring me the fish that Mary caught." They would say "Bring me that fish. Mary caught that fish." Two independent sentences are needed in Pirahã rather than the single English recursive one.

    In corresponding with me earlier this week, Everett explained this for my non-linguist's brain (and it's explained near the end of Language, too): The Pirahã language has what's called "an evidence requirement." Each utterance is marked, by means of a suffix on certain words, as how the information contained in that statement came to be known. Was it witnessed directly by the speaker, heard from a third party or deduced from available evidence? In our example, that the fish should be brought and that the fish was caught by Mary are statements that each must be marked on its own; the two cannot be combined recursively because each has its own evidence requirement.

    If you're familiar with Noam Chomsky's theorizing on language, you by now will have intuited that Everett's data directly challenge it. I refer both to Chomsky's insistence on universal grammar as an inborn set of rules in every human brain that allows a child to learn grammar, and also to his more recent work with Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch that recursion is the defining feature of all human languages.

    Language is learned, on Everett's account. And the Pirahãs do just fine, he says, without recursion in their language. Everett couldn't be more forceful in claiming that Chomsky is wrong.

    This is no polite academic disagreement. Everett told me, "Over the years, first because of my ties to SIL and then because of my 'traitorous' turn against Chomsky, I have been accused of racism, of mining uranium, of stealing the Pirahãs' teeth, of fathering children with Pirahã women, of 'stealing their language' and on and on and on."

    These charges Everett finds — as do I, to the degree that I can judge such things — absurd. The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people. In Language he takes on this issue directly:

    "People seem to worry that if we say a given language lacks grammatical devices that are found in other languages, then that this is tantamount to claiming that the speakers of one language are somehow inferior to the speakers of the other. But nothing could be further from the truth. ... Languages are tools that fit their cultural niche."

    So why does all this matter? For one thing, it challenges the seductive, heavily biologized discourse that I've complained about before. Of course, as a biological anthropologist, I know that, in an important sense, culture is part of our biology, that the two shouldn't be split. But keep in mind, Everett is challenging a dominant discourse (Chomsky's); in that context, he's right to harp on culture.

    For another thing, it shows how getting out into the field to live among speakers of human language makes a difference. This is no Chomsky-esque armchair theorizing; it's immersive anthropology at work. Another fine example of this approach comes from Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson in their article on the "myth" of human linguistic universals.


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    Apr 26, 2012 9:50 PM GMT
    It would be interesting to see if the Pirahã children follow similar language development patterns to children in other cultures.
    If not fair enough but if they do, what stage do the grammatical differences begin to set in?

    I might be looking at this wrong though.
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    Apr 26, 2012 9:55 PM GMT
    mil0 saidIt would be interesting to see if the Pirahã children follow similar language development patterns to children in other cultures.
    If not fair enough but if they do, what stage do the grammatical differences begin to set in?

    I might be looking at this wrong though.


    At least while the language is still alive. Even though Pirahã only has several hundred speakers, it's managing to stay afloat and thrive.

    However, I suspect it's only a matter of time (probably a generation or two) till they start shifting more to Portuguese. Right now their population remains mostly monolingual. Only a handful of Pirahã have any conversational fluency of Portuguese, mainly those who cooperate with linguists and anthropologists.
  • tegga8

    Posts: 59

    Apr 26, 2012 9:57 PM GMT
    This is a large and interesting subject, and I have heard Everett speak about his theories on the radio. A few things strike me straight away. Firstly, the Pirahãs have a language. This is important. Finding a human group without a language would be the first evidence that language is simply a social construct, rather than an evolved facility, for which the human infant has a compulsion. - Chomsky's idea of the 'language organ' does not imply a 'language gene'. It is a convenient shorthand for the complex, but inate structures through which language is synthesised.

    Seccondly, Everett's account of the language of the Pirahãsis just that.
    And even by Everett's account, the Pirahãs do have parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs, and a grammar through which complex social contexts can be expressed.

    The Pirahãs would have arrived from somewhere. Presumably their anticedents arrived with a language. What he sees now is the consequence of that language shifting to its current form over at most a few thousand years. Presumably it does the job of aiding survival in its current environment.

    I can think of a few kids I teach who have no words for 'please' 'thank you' and 'you're wecome'.
  • DrewT

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    Apr 26, 2012 10:34 PM GMT
    Language is a symbol icon_smile.gif
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    Apr 26, 2012 10:49 PM GMT
    There are structures in the brain that are directly linked to language, and specifically grammar. There has been no tribe or culture found without language. It is a biological things innate in humans, namely the Broca's area of the frontal lobe and Wernicke's area of the temporal lobe. His theory is deeply flawed. These language centres have been known since the 60's, so I feel that this researcher may have lost in touch with reality.

    Language IS biological and grammatical constructs are common throughout different cultures, but just modified by culture somewhat.
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    Apr 26, 2012 10:49 PM GMT
    Wasn't that kind of obvious? icon_razz.gif
  • kuroshiro

    Posts: 786

    Apr 26, 2012 11:02 PM GMT
    Justtrying saidWasn't that kind of obvious? icon_razz.gif


    That's the first thing I thought when I read the title.
  • crownroyal117

    Posts: 42

    Apr 26, 2012 11:21 PM GMT
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26425177/ns/health-childrens_health/t/why-mama-dada-are-babys-first-words/

    Mostly culture. A little bit of biology.
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    Apr 26, 2012 11:30 PM GMT
    pocketnico saidThere's a lot I can say about this topic, but I'll just post the article itself first.

    Original article:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/04/24/151310809/culture-not-biology-shapes-language?sc=fb&cc=fp

    ...

    There are no meaningful human universals when it comes to how people construct sentences to communicate with each other. Across the languages of the world (estimated to number 6,000-8,000), nouns, verbs, and objects are arranged in sentences in different ways as people express their thoughts. The powerful force behind this variability is culture.
    ...


    This becomes readily apparent if you learn a language outside of your own group. For most of us on RJ, that means learning a non Indo-European language.

    I learned a Finno-Ugric Language. Was kinda of mind blowing. Some of the fundamentals are *completely* different; nouns and the associated agglutinative suffixes play a bigger role in the fundamental grammar, for example.
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    Apr 26, 2012 11:38 PM GMT
    but they still have verbs and nouns... i like to compare that with creole languages, one of which i speak.. and Everett is right! in the sense that, even though clauses are possible, speakers of creoles tend to prefer using individual sentences... also, we tend to employ long phrases for description... but to say there is "no universal grammar".. wouldnt that be negating the fact that every language, including piraha, has "subject" "object" and "verb"? Chomsky could be wrong about many aspects of universal grammar... but those three grammatical features seem consistent... At least, this is my impression.


    Edit: would it be acceptable to say that human phonemic systems also convey a sort of universal grammar? One distinguishing between consonants and vowels on one hand... within vowels open vs round... front vs back... nasal or not... and in consonants in the place of articulation? etc.? or is it going too far to put this under the banner of "grammar?"
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    Apr 26, 2012 11:39 PM GMT
    btw: i'm impressed with the number of language nerds on realjock lol
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    Apr 26, 2012 11:45 PM GMT
    GreenHopper saidbut they still have verbs and nouns... i like to compare that with creole languages, one of which i speak.. and Everett is right! in the sense that, even though clauses are possible, speakers of creoles tend to prefer using individual sentences... also, we tend to employ long phrases for description... but to say there is "no universal grammar".. wouldnt that be negating the fact that every language, including piraha, has "subject" "object" and "verb"? Chomsky could be wrong about many aspects of universal grammar... but those three grammatical features seem consistent... At least, this is my impression.



    What is done via a verb is quite mutable, however.

    For example, none of the Finno-Ugric languages have a verb "to have". In Hungarian, the verb is "to be" and the possession is not an act but a characteristic of the noun, declined with an agglutinative suffix that indicates the possessor.

    I wonder if there are any studies of such subtle differences (eg. possession as active constructions vs. passive constructions) affecting attitudes/actions...
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    Apr 26, 2012 11:48 PM GMT
    tegga8 said

    I can think of a few kids I teach who have no words for 'please' 'thank you' and 'you're wecome'.


    I know many languages in which those words are usually not used, even though they may exist... politeness is conveyed by changing the verbs and the terms of address.. notably this happens in South Asian languages, but I believe its a universal feature.. just as in English "you" vs "thou" and the royal "we" for the sake of politeness...

    Or basically: "gimme that thing" vs "would you be so kind as to hand me that?" is already a conveyance of politeness in itself, and does not require "please" or "you're welcome" to show that you are being "polite"... this in other languages, to the umpteenth degree... with no thank you's practically anywhere
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    Apr 26, 2012 11:50 PM GMT
    intensity69 said
    GreenHopper saidbut they still have verbs and nouns... i like to compare that with creole languages, one of which i speak.. and Everett is right! in the sense that, even though clauses are possible, speakers of creoles tend to prefer using individual sentences... also, we tend to employ long phrases for description... but to say there is "no universal grammar".. wouldnt that be negating the fact that every language, including piraha, has "subject" "object" and "verb"? Chomsky could be wrong about many aspects of universal grammar... but those three grammatical features seem consistent... At least, this is my impression.



    What is done via a verb is quite mutable, however.

    For example, none of the Finno-Ugric languages have a verb "to have". In Hungarian, the verb is "to be" and the possession is not an act but a characteristic of the noun, declined with an agglutinative suffix that indicates the possessor.

    I wonder if there are any studies of such subtle differences (eg. possession as active constructions vs. passive constructions) affecting attitudes/actions...


    O no, the verb to have is an exception... it is in fact, "to be" in a vast number of languages... or can even be omitted completely... for instance, in sanskrit, you can say "this of me" instead of "I have this"... but these are not verbs of action.. they are "state" verbs if you will... for actions.. all languages still require verbs... such as "sing" or "walk"

    And yes, it does affect actions.. in fact.. it affects us psychologically... where a speaker will describe a scene as a series of static events rather than a smooth action, if in that language, active verbs are not preferred... however, they do exist as verbs...
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    Apr 27, 2012 12:16 AM GMT
    Man, I go away for a few hours and this topic blows up! I was expecting only GreenHopper to discuss this, lol.

    Where do I start? I have a lot to go through here!
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    Apr 27, 2012 12:19 AM GMT
    pocketnico saidMan, I go away for a few hours and this topic blows up! I was expecting only GreenHopper to discuss this, lol.


    To be honest, i thought the same and that it would just be you and me.. and then all these language nerds show up lol.... i think i'll be buddy listing a lot of new people at the end of this haha icon_smile.gif
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    Apr 27, 2012 1:08 AM GMT
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursion
    "Indirect proof that Everett's ideas are wrong comes from works in neurolinguistics where it appears that all human beings are endowed with the very same neurobiological structures to manage with all and only recursive languages. For a review, see Kaan et al. (2002)"

    Why is it thought that the Pirahã simply have not developed or utilized ways of thinking that they may be perfectly capable of? How does this redefine anything?

    tegga8 said...I can think of a few kids I teach who have no words for 'please' 'thank you' and 'you're wecome'.


    And apparently a few followed you onto RJ. Thank you. Thank you very much for that.
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    Apr 27, 2012 1:11 AM GMT
    Language is not biological at all. It is in fact learned through culture. In fact, it helps define culture.
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    Apr 27, 2012 1:14 AM GMT
    Counterfeit_Jock saidLanguage is not biological at all. It is in fact learned through culture. In fact, it helps define culture.


    Well, for our species it's critical to have the full anatomy for language. It's been suggested that the vocal structure of other species of Homo (and all ancestors before it) might have given them limited abilities with language. Or rather they wouldn't have been produce as many sounds as modern humans. That's the impression from various fossils anyway.
  • araphael

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    Apr 27, 2012 2:49 AM GMT
    I would agree with the fact that culture influences language to some extent; however, I'm more inclined to go with Noam Chomsky's generative grammar theories which seem to point to a definite genetic/biologic component to language acquisition and competence (in the linguistic since not the common vernacular sense of the word competence). The problem arises however when you suggest this is the case that then an immediate link is made between intelligence and language competence and acquisition and that is a pandora's box to open, of sorts.
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    Apr 27, 2012 4:17 AM GMT
    theantijock saidhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursion
    "Indirect proof that Everett's ideas are wrong comes from works in neurolinguistics where it appears that all human beings are endowed with the very same neurobiological structures to manage with all and only recursive languages. For a review, see Kaan et al. (2002)"

    Why is it thought that the Pirahã simply have not developed or utilized ways of thinking that they may be perfectly capable of? How does this redefine anything?


    What Im wondering is...did he perhaps simply analyse the language as non-recursive when in fact it was?

    Say for instance.. we in english say.... "gimme the fish you caught"... we dont need to say "that" in the middle to make it recursive, and similar structures can be found in sanskrit as well... where one single word is used to say "you caught".. rather like we in english can also say: "gimme the fish caught by you"... the latter is NOT recursive, because here, "caught" operates as an adjective, and "by you" is rather like a marker of an object than a new sentence. We CAN make this sentence recursive by adding words: "gimme the fish that was caught by you".. in creole, we often say things like: "you caught a fish. Give it to me.",, but we can also say... "gimme the fish that you caught".. is it possible that Everett thought he saw no recursion because of the lack of a linking word such as "that"?

    To put it differently: kist because in Piraha they say "gimme that fish you caught it" does not mean its not recursive, perhaps to a Piraha speaker.. that whole thing was ONE sentence but they do not need any linking words for the separate clauses? Nor do they need to change word order... much like how in Sanskrit... a single word describes "the fish caught by you" by linking the words together in a single string... to a Sanskrit speaker "the fish caught by you" is not a sentence, it is one word... so then I would have to ask.. what is needed for recursion? Since not all languages seem to need it, and even english can play around with it quite freely, perhaps there are other structures that are still used, and that ard used in Piraha?

    Incidentally: the piraha example of using different sentences to report things directly experienced from hearsay or from hearsay of a person who experienced it directly, is very common among South American indigenous languages

    And finally: wasnt Everett the only person to "master" their language? What if the Piraha decided to make their own language easy for him to understand, and thats why they resorted to using simple sentences.. to help the "poor dumb f*ck from outside" ? lmao!
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    Apr 27, 2012 4:45 AM GMT
    pocketnico saidCulture, not biology, shapes human language
    The thing that surprises me most is the fact that a study about this was even preformed.

    Verbal communication has evolved and expanded since the beginning of written history. Not to mention, bits of pieces of every language are heard in every language (think 'Spanglish' or 'Multilinguish').

    Or you can think like my mom and say "well the bible says Babylon is where languages separated." icon_lol.gif
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    Apr 27, 2012 4:47 AM GMT
    This time last year, I was in a human geography class and we discussed this very topic. Language spreads and mutates based on geography and history, and it was probably discovered around the same time when Man realized that they can make words with their mouths. For example, Romania is a romance language in the middle of a very Slavic region because Roman soldiers settled in the area a long, long time ago, so because of their cultures, their languages melted together. Same with Haitian Creole after the French moved in. This study isn't new.
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    Apr 27, 2012 2:14 PM GMT
    GreenHopper said
    theantijock saidhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursion
    "Indirect proof that Everett's ideas are wrong comes from works in neurolinguistics where it appears that all human beings are endowed with the very same neurobiological structures to manage with all and only recursive languages. For a review, see Kaan et al. (2002)"

    Why is it thought that the Pirahã simply have not developed or utilized ways of thinking that they may be perfectly capable of? How does this redefine anything?


    What Im wondering is...did he perhaps simply analyse the language as non-recursive when in fact it was?

    Say for instance.. we in english say.... "gimme the fish you caught"... we dont need to say "that" in the middle to make it recursive, and similar structures can be found in sanskrit as well... where one single word is used to say "you caught".. rather like we in english can also say: "gimme the fish caught by you"... the latter is NOT recursive, because here, "caught" operates as an adjective, and "by you" is rather like a marker of an object than a new sentence. We CAN make this sentence recursive by adding words: "gimme the fish that was caught by you".. in creole, we often say things like: "you caught a fish. Give it to me.",, but we can also say... "gimme the fish that you caught".. is it possible that Everett thought he saw no recursion because of the lack of a linking word such as "that"?

    To put it differently: kist because in Piraha they say "gimme that fish you caught it" does not mean its not recursive, perhaps to a Piraha speaker.. that whole thing was ONE sentence but they do not need any linking words for the separate clauses? Nor do they need to change word order... much like how in Sanskrit... a single word describes "the fish caught by you" by linking the words together in a single string... to a Sanskrit speaker "the fish caught by you" is not a sentence, it is one word... so then I would have to ask.. what is needed for recursion? Since not all languages seem to need it, and even english can play around with it quite freely, perhaps there are other structures that are still used, and that ard used in Piraha?

    Incidentally: the piraha example of using different sentences to report things directly experienced from hearsay or from hearsay of a person who experienced it directly, is very common among South American indigenous languages

    And finally: wasnt Everett the only person to "master" their language? What if the Piraha decided to make their own language easy for him to understand, and thats why they resorted to using simple sentences.. to help the "poor dumb f*ck from outside" ? lmao!


    Interesting analysis. It is decades since I studied linguistics formally and I neither recall Everett nor, outside of what I've read here, am I familiar with the Piraha, which I can not read without internally hearing pariah, making it difficult to concentrate on the tribe. Is my writing, thus my thinking, enough recursive?

    I think you are part off but part on the mark, and possibly leaning towards a thought I also have on the subject.

    The structure of a phrase works the same independently of whatever words are spelled out or understood in their absence. So their absence does not make a phrase any less recursive.

    But you're probably correct to think that the tribe connects in their thinking the two independent thoughts, even as they express them separately. If someone has a fish it must be fairly obvious to anyone that person at least somehow acquired it, if not by fishing it than in a card game with a good hand. So I doubt the thoughts are ever entirely separate though that's how they might be expressed.

    And that plays into what I was thinking on reading the OP that there seems some cultures have more of a flow about their thought processes while others seem more choppy. They can probably understand the same things just like two people getting to the same destination by different routes. I sometimes wonder if that isn't the connection between Jewish and Asian, for instance: moreso than our enjoyment of Chinese food, that there is a similar flowing type of thinking. 'Alternatively, western thinking in general tends to seem to me a bit choppy. And this tribe as described even choppier (I'm pretty sure that's not a technical term but it is how it seems to me).

    Funny as to your last part of the tribe being considerate by speaking slowly and loudly to aid the foreigner's understanding.