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Wednesday Linguistics: Late and not mine

2006-05-11 @ 9:38

Interesting article about an even more interesting culture and language.

The Pirahã people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world — and also one of the most hotly debated by linguists.

In this article, it is said, in passing, that “Linguistics generally focuses on what idioms across the world have in common.” That is a good start, but to really understand something, scientist usually also look at the differences. Those can say a lot about a system. It is, in a way, a form of “differential diagnostic”. The language in question, Pirahã, does not have subordinate clauses. You can’t say “When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you,” you have to say “I finish eating, I speak with you.”

This seems to go against the principle of recursion, which is one of the basis for constructing complex instances with minimal effort — and even Chomsky acknowledges that it is at the heart of language. But does it? The thing is, recursion is not just a question of subordinate clauses. Those are only one instance. The mere fact of having sentences of more than two words imply recursion: when the child goes from two-word sentences to more-than-two-words, it means s/he has understood that two words together can be viewed as a single entity, which in turn can be related to other such entities.

I think that the absence of subordinate clauses is actually in line with the conception of time. They see things as more or less fixed. The past and future are just other presents. To subordinate one action to another implies a slightly more complex view of time than just the addition of one thing after another similar thing. (Granted, I don’t know much about Pirahã, so I could be wrong.)

For those of you who might be interested, Language Log has a list of links about that language. I haven’t yet had time to check them out.

via 3quarksdaily

One comment to “Wednesday Linguistics: Late and not mine”

  1. Interesting.

    I haven’t been following this, though of course anything which wounds Beast Chomper always welcome! Good point about subordination & recursion.

    It’s probably too early to get too worked up about this, seeing how limited the data on the language is and how little confirmation has been done on Everett’s interpretation of it.

    (I popped by primarily to see what you meant about placing a question in the comment to fight the bots…since I have not been a frequent enough visitor to know/remember immediately. I will try to rectify that, btw!)

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