Does Pirahã Allow Recursion?
“These constraints lead to the startling conclusion that Hockett’s (1960) design features of human language, even more widely accepted among linguists that Chomsky’s proposed universal grammar, must be revised. With respect to Chomsky’s proposal, the conclusion is severe – some of the components of so-called core grammar are subject to cultural constraints, something that is predicted not to occur by the universal-grammar model.”
These four claims have stirred a great deal of controversy, particularly in the popular media (see the article in The Economist and this one in The Chronicle of Higher Education). But Everett’s key arguments have also been challenged by other researchers, most notably by linguists Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky, and Cilene Rodrigues (2009). Based on Everett’s own data, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues argued that the “inexplicable gaps” of the Pirahã language are illusory, nonexistent, or not supported by adequate evidence. In addition, based on the work of Brazilian anthropologist Marco Antônio Gonçalves, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues argue that Everett’s characterization of Pirahã culture as exceptional fails as well. According to Gonçalves, Pirahã do have creation myths and are not strictly monolingual. Moreover, even assuming that Everett is correct in his characterization of the Pirahã language and culture, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues show that any linguistic and cultural gaps are not linked. The peculiar constructions and grammatical oddities found in Pirahã are actually encountered elsewhere, in languages as varied as German, Chinese, Hebrew, and Adyghe, whose speakers do not share the unusual cultural properties ascribed by Everett to the Pirahã. Finally, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues asserted that “even if such a connection [between language and culture] should exist, it poses no conceivable challenge to the proposition that some features of [Universal Grammar] are unique to language”, thus requiring no revision of Chomsky’s model of language, as entailed by Everett. Thus, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues conclude that Pirahã “emerges from the literature as … a fascinating language – but at the same time, it is just a language among other languages of the world, a claim that casts no aspersions on Pirahã.”
Let’s consider more closely one of the most crucial issues of this controversy: whether Pirahã allows recursion. One of two things may be understood by the term “recursion”: either putting something inside of something which is then put inside of something else, or putting objects of the same type inside each other. In his delightfully humorous and culinarily informed post, Daniel Harbour appetizingly describes these two senses of “recursion” as “dumpling-borsht recursion” (filling inside dumpling inside borscht) and “turducken recursion” (chicken inside duck inside turkey). Recursion understood in the former sense is obviously present in all languages: sounds are combined into morphemes, morphemes are combined into words, and words are combined into sentences. Thus, the really crucial type of recursion is the latter type, in which objects of the same type are embedded inside one another, like Russian “matryoshka dolls”. Dan Everett also used this definition of recursion: “putting one [multiword] phrase inside another of the same type …, e.g., noun phrases in noun phrases, sentences in sentences, etc.” (Everett 2005: 622). Constructions that involve embedding in this sense include, among others, recursive possession (noun phrase inside a noun phrase) and clausal objects (a clause inside a clause). The following English examples illustrate the relevant structures, which are bracketed in the examples below:
Recursive possession: [Mary’s brother’s] canoe has a hole.
Clausal object: John knows [how to make an arrow].
Both types of recursion are potentially infinite, at least as far as grammar is concerned: witness Mary’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s…or John knows that Bill believes that Mary thinks that Dan has said…(The famous “This is the house that Jack built” rhyme illustrates another type of a potentially infinite recursion structure involving relative clauses.)
As it turns out, the Pirahã language does not have the constructions corresponding precisely to those found in the English examples above. But Pirahã is not unique in lacking recursive possession or clausal objects. Moreover, Pirahã has variations of these constructions that are found in many other (unrelated) languages.
Consider recursive possession first. A prenominal possessor (‘Mary’s brother’) is possible in Pirahã, but a possessor noun phrase may not itself contain a possessor (the asterisk before the second Pirahã sentence means that the sentence is ungrammatical):
|‘That is Xopoogi’s shotgun.’ (Everett 1986: 205)|
|‘That is Ko’oi’s son’s daughter.’ (Everett 2005: 630)|
This ban on recursive possession, contrary to Everett’s claims, is not peculiar to Pirahã or other similarly “exotic” languages. It is found in such a familiar language as German, where Hans-ens Auto ‘Hans’ car’ is grammatical, but an attempt at recursive possession such as *Hans-ens Auto-s Motor ‘Hans’ car’s motor’ is not. This prohibition does not mean that German speakers cannot express the latter meaning; they can say the equivalent of ‘the motor of Hans’ car’ instead. So what seems to be ruled out in German is recursion with noun phrases (i.e. noun phrase inside noun phrase inside noun phrase). This prohibition against possessor recursion in German has been explained not by the impossibility of embedding but by limitations on the genitive case. The same effect is found in other genitive environments in German, such as the direct objects of particular verbs and prepositions. Simply put, genitives do not stack in German. Crucially for our discussion of Pirahã, the fact that German appears to show the same restriction suggests that “whatever syntactic switch turns off prenominal possessor recursion in German is also at work in Pirahã”, as Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (2009: 368) put it. They also make the obvious observation that “the culture shared by most German speakers is more similar to that of most English speakers than either English-speaking or German-speaking cultures are to the culture of the Pirahã”. Thus, the explanation for the lack of recursive possession cannot be formulated in cultural terms.
The argument based on clausal embedding is similar: the way in which clausal objects are structured in Pirahã is similar to the patterns found in other languages that do not share the cultural peculiarities of Pirahã. Clausal objects in Pirahã are characterized by two peculiarities. First, such objects must contain a special morpheme -sai which is said to make the object clause more nominal; for example, grammatical notions such as tense, aspect, and agreement typically found in clauses cannot be expressed by such a nominalized clause. In this respect, -sai is similar to the English gerundive –ing. The way a Pirahã speaker says ‘He really knows how to make arrows’ is more akin to the English ‘He really knows making arrows’:
|‘He really knows how to make arrows.’ (Everett 1986: 263)|
But again, using nominalized clausal objects is not unique either to Pirahã or to other Amazonian languages. This pattern is found in many other languages, including Quechua, Inuktitut, and Adyghe, as well as in Turkic languages, such as Tatar, where the suffix -w corresponds to the Pirahã -sai and the English -ing:
|min||[ sineŋ||alma||aša-w-ıŋ-nı ]||bel-ä-m.|
|‘I know that you ate an apple.’ (literally, ‘I know your apple eating’)|
The second peculiarity of Pirahã clausal objects, also identified by Everett, is that such clausal objects follow the verb rather than precede it, like noun objects do. Note that in the above Pirahã example, the noun object kahaí ‘arrow’ precedes the (nominalized) verb kai-sai ‘make’, but the clausal object kahaí kai-sai follows its verb obáaxáí ‘really know’. However, this combination of Object-Verb order with noun objects and Verb-Object order with clausal objects is also far from rare cross-linguistically. Among languages that have the same pattern are German (illustrated below), Hindi, and Wappo (an extinct Yukian language, once spoken in California). In the German examples below, the object is bracketed and the relevant verb is boldfaced.
German Object-Verb (noun object):
|‘Hans has seen the children.’|
German Verb-Object (clausal object):
|‘Hans said that he has seen the children.’|
Upon examinaing various properties of Pirahã that Everett claims to be specially constrained by the speakers’ culture, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues conclude that
“if speakers acquire the same types of languages whether their home is a German city, a village in the Caucasus, or the banks of the Maici River in Amazonas, Brazil, we have discovered just the kind of disassociation between language and culture that sheds light on the nature and structure of UG”
And while this conclusion runs contrary to Everett’s view of Pirahã as being unique among human languages, it is extraordinary in its own way. Given how closely language and culture seem to be connected at the first glance, it is tempting to see them as inseparable. It is also easy to think that certain cultural peculiarities of a given group—such as lack of numbers—may entail that their language is “primitive”. The discovery that this is not actually so is therefore most remarkable—and the next GeoCurrents post will consider this issue in more detail.
In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving, Happy Hanukkah and a joyous weekend to all our readers!
Nevins, A., Pesetsky, D., Rodrigues, C. (2009). Pirahã Exceptionality: A Reassessment. Language 85(2), 355-404
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