Universal Grammar and the Exception that Proves or Disproves the Rule

 

I’m a big fan of Norm Chomsky, the famous linguist who is smarter than a whole room of geniuses thinking together.  There is a problem with one of his big theories however and the solution seemed to be to make the problem go away rather than change the theory. The theory is called Universal Grammar or UG. UG states that grammar is hard wired into our DNA and despite many different languages around the world all languages share certain structure of grammar and recursion.

the father of Universal Grammar Norn Chomsky

the father of Universal Grammar Norn Chomsky

Norm Chomsky claims that his theory is correct because it is “impossible to deny” except there is that one case…

Enter Daniel Everett a former missionary turned linguist. Daniel Everett failed as a missionary because when he tried living with the Pirahã tribe in the amazon and learned their language he learned that their language only had the present tense, no number system or color identification, no art, and no creationist story. Without these basic ideas present in most every other culture the Pirahã according to Daniel Everett are some of the happiest people on earth. They had no need for Everett’s heaven or hell. Abandoning his religion Everett turned to higher education and wrote a paper on how the Pirahã language had no recursion or verb structures like all other languages.

the Pirahã

the Pirahã

The backlash from his publication was enormous in the world of linguists. Norm Chomsky denounced him as a hack and after much attention from the press on the matter the Brazilian government banned Everett from ever visiting the tribe again. MIT working with Everett set out to prove through recordings that Pirahã did not adhere to the laws of UG but the results were inconclusive. No evidence of recursion of conjugated verb structure was found but Everett was the only living white guy to speak the language and so there was no control subject. In another bizarre twist, the Brazilian government who had banned visits from Everett under the guise of the tribes protection made a very un-Star Trek prime directive move and installed electricity, running water, toilets and schools to teach Portuguese to the tribes children. A move that while bringing modern conveniences to the tribe also brought the problems and burdens of modern life.    

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