A discussion of “Understanding Recursion and Looking for Self-Embedding in Pirahã”

A discussion of Understanding Recursion and Looking for Self-Embedding in Pirahã, by Raiane Oliveira Salles, Pontifícia Universidade Católica of Rio de Janeiro. http://www.maxwell.vrac.puc-rio.br/26480/26480.PDF

In the decades since I began field research on the Pirahã language, in December of 1977, 39 years ago, no one else has done any descriptive linguistics field research on this language. Brazilian Anthropologist Marco Antônio Gonçalves did about 18 months of field research in the late 80s and early 90s, to produce both a master’s thesis and a PhD in anthropology, on Pirahã naming and cosmology respectively. He never learned the language, but he did provide initial coverage to important topics in Pirahã culture.

Salles’s efforts are thus a new addition to the Pirahã linguistic literature. And knowing as I do how challenging field research is along the Maici, I salute her efforts. It is a bit surprising that of the 200 indigenous languages spoken in Brazil, many of which are urgently in need of documentation, she would choose instead to work on a language as thoroughly documented as Pirahã. But she states her reasons clearly at the outset: “It has been claimed that the Pirahã, a Brazilian native language spoken in the Amazon region, is non-recursive, disallowing syntactic embedding altogether (Everett 2005). This thesis investigates that claim.”

It is my understanding that Salles is currently writing a PhD thesis on Pirahã at the University of British Columbia. I had therefore expected to wait for the completion of that more mature study before replying to these analyses and counter-analyses. But this initial work seems to be circulating to an extent that I felt it would be worth a brief review here, reserving a larger consideration for published or doctoral work.

The MA thesis focuses on self-embedding in nominal constructions. Before offering an assessment of the data and analyses in that domain, I want to begin by noting that several important methodological details are not included in the thesis, which makes the rest of the work hard to evaluate.  In particular: (a) How was the research carried out? This includes things such as the actual amount of time spent in the village and how the time in the village was used. For example, how many actual weeks of village living was this thesis based on? (b) How many hours of elicitation did she engage in daily? (c) With how many language teachers did Salles work? (d) Were the teachers all men or all women or a mixture of both? (e) How did she check her transcriptions and translations before leaving the village? (f) Did she contact other known experts on the language? (g) Did she conduct a full literature review on the language? (h) Are the data available (such as http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0145289)?

A more serious methodological criticism of the work is that Salles never learned to speak Pirahã. As she states at the outset, none of the Pirahã speak Portuguese, but what she calls a type of “pidgin language” (actually a mixture of Nheengatu, a former trade language of the Amazon with a few Portuguese words, as I discussed in my 1979 MA dissertation, which she fails to cite). One can tell from the thesis that she lacks a speaking understanding of the language, due to the failure to even attempt to represent tone or intonation and inaccuracies throughout her mixed phonemic and phonetic representations (The only examples of Pirahã grammar that show tones, a crucial component of Pirahã grammar (not merely phonology) come from my work.) Without a mastery of these, there can be no speaking ability of Pirahã beyond extremely rudimentary communication. Certainly nothing as sophisticated as would be required to investigate recursion or semantics. As mentioned, her transcriptions are neither phonetic nor phonemic, providing a mixture of some of the orthography I have proposed, with her own impressions. She omits glottal stop (inadvertently or because she didn’t hear it) frequently in word-initial position and often represents underlying /b/ as [m] in her transcriptions. [m] is merely a surface allophone of /b/ in Pirahã (Everett 1979).

Salles does cite José Augusto Pirahã (known better as “Verão,” named after the missionaries that preceded me among the Pirahãs, who, like me, were members of the Instituto Linguistico de Verao) favorably. I suspect (given the lack of discussion of her language teachers, perhaps I am mistaken) that he was in fact her main research assistant and teacher during her field research. Augusto never lived in a Pirahã village until he was in his 20s. His father would speak to him in Pirahã occasionally. Raimunda had a reasonable passive comprehension of Pirahã as did Augusto and his siblings, but I never heard any of them speak the language. Nor does he speak it fluently now. Augusto’s ability in the Pirahã is at best a 2 on the four-point scale of the “Interagency Roundtable Scale.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ILR_scale#ILR_Level_2_.E2.80.93_Limited_working_proficiency). I do not believe that he would dispute this if asked, though it is likely that he has learned much more of the language since last I saw him, so his fluency could have risen to level three. Augusto is simply unable to accurately translate Pirahã examples at the level required for detailed morphosyntactic analysis, nor for semantic readings of any subtlety. No more than many indigenous community members around the world whose families have shifted to a trade language.  Given these limitations, the entire thesis is cast into serious doubt.

Nevertheless, let’s examine the data that Salles provides. (I add the tones that she omits and correct her transcriptions, as necessary, using her example numbers):

Example (61) is identical to one I discuss in my PhD dissertation and much subsequent work. I used it as the kind of example that once led me to believe that Pirahã syntax was recursive.  However, when working more carefully with the Pirahãs, they in fact reject such sentences and never are multiple adjectives used in natural conversations or texts. This kind of example is relatively easy to get in sentence-level elicitation, however. And the easiest way to get them, apparently exactly how Salles collected them based on her caption of a photo of her outside of the village in a black dress (p129), is to ask the Pirahãs “Can you say this?” “Or is this OK?” They tend to say yes to most anything they can understand following such a question. When I asked them why they never said (61) outside of elicitation, they replied, “Because we don’t talk like that.” I replied “But you said I could say that.” “Yes, you can say whatever you want. You are not a Pirahã.” It is a bad methodology as I learned. Had Salles read my own work, she might have at least explained why she insisted on using this methodology in spite of its severe problems. This is another indictment of bilingual vs. monolingual field research, something that Salles is limited to not speaking the language well. Yet I have written and lectured extensively on the dangers of bilingual field research in essentially monolingual environments.

I won’t go through all of her other examples, choosing just one or two more. The common thread running through all of Salles’s examples, however, is that they are given with incomplete phonology, out of context, without remarking on who uttered them, under what circumstances, or whether corresponding examples were found in texts. Only in natural discourse can we see whether or not these are natural utterances or artificial outputs of the single-sentence elicitation method, in a language the Pirahãs do not speak.

There is, in fact, not a single example of Noun Phrase “recursion” anywhere in Salles’s thesis that is not disembodied. The Pirahãs can understand any of the examples given, I suspect. But that is very different from uttering them naturally or accepting them as grammatical in the sense of modern linguistic theory. Let’s take her example (85) to drive home this point (again, I supplement her transcription with tones and the correct “phonemic” representation):

Actually, this sentence is simply a series of words. It couldn’t mean anything as a noun phrase because “motor” is a type of boat and would not occur in a single phrase with “canoe.” It looks like a paraphrase or an appositional clarification. To support the idea, however, that it means what Salles claims it means, ” Kapóogo’s big canoe motor,” one would have to provide an example in which all of (85) is either the subject or the object. She does this for example (62), but as I stated, this is in fact ungrammatical. With regard to other examples,  I predict that no such embedded version exists because these are not well-formed Pirahã phrases. Only one of Salles’s apparent recursive noun phrases is shown in any grammatical argument position in a sentence. But that is one from my own work that I have explained in later publications to be ungrammatical. That would be a minimum requirement to support her analysis. And on top of that, it would have to be shown that these examples came from a native speaker not simply a native speaker agreeing with a question posed by her, such as “Can you say this?”

In short, this thesis is methodologically unsound. It suffers from working with a non-native, non-bilingual informant whose first language is Portuguese, from asking Pirahãs questions about sentences or phrases in isolation, from failure to place the crucial examples in a sentential or discourse context, and from any evidence that the Pirahãs spontaneously supplied these examples without prompting, as answers to questions they understood.

I will make just one more comment. At the end of the thesis in the appendix, Salles shows the Pirahãs drawing a map and posing beside the map they drew. But “map” is a highly abstract concept from very different cultures. Did they actually realize that they were attempting a two-dimensional representation of a portion of their reservation, as the map label indicates? Or were they simply representing bits and pieces of the scene in front of them? And who did most of the drawing? The man shown drawing is an old friend of mine and I know that he has never drawn anything more than a fish (which he seems to be drawing here) after being taught to do so by Keren Madora, my ex-wife. If this was drawn by the actual Pirahãs and not by Augusto or instructed by anyone, then it represents a cultural shift. This would not be utterly surprising since Brazilian government agencies have been running a school, building western-style buildings, adding electricity in villages, and otherwise introducing dramatic cultural changes into the Pirahã village at Piquiá, exactly where Salles worked, for some 9 years now.

To wrap up, I am glad to see that Salles is doing field research on the Pirahãs. She has chosen to work in a very, very difficult linguistic situation. Good intentions aside, though, her thesis does not deliver. There is nothing remotely convincing in it that Pirahã manifests either recursion or embedding.

What enabled me to finally recognize the error of my recursion-based analysis of Pirahã was when I attempted to translate the New Testament (this also led to a profound conversion in me from believer to atheist, as I have documented in many places). Without the fundamental semantic understanding that such an exercise, with many language teachers, checked in numerous ways for comprehension, it is nearly impossible to tease apart the judgments necessary for something so challenging as determining whether a language lacks recursion or embedding. Even Donald Davidson, in his famous 1968 article “On Saying That” argued that English quotatives were non-embedded. These things are not transparent.

A full listing of my works on Pirahã is found here: https://daneverettbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Daniel-Everett-CV-11.29.16.pdf

Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolfe? Apparently everyone.

Gibberish meets Wolfe: Recursion is Just a State of Mind

Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech, continues to be the object of scathing reviews on blogs, in comments, and even in newspaper articles by linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, journalists, and evolutionary biologists  – often people with some belief that the views of Noam Chomsky on linguistics and politics are proven or so well-established that challenges from outside of science – the unwashed – are somehow sacrilegious. I have no dog in this fight. Wolfe’s book is not my book. The parts about me are accurate. Tom talked to me for hours over a period of several months. I never had any context. I only answered questions about myself and my views. Not where they fit in science.

But Tom Wolfe is a big boy. Like Chomsky, he can take care of himself. (Unlike Chomsky he lacks the “vested-interest-hordes” at his command whose own careers are built on his ideas.) My main reactions to most of the reviews about Wolfe’s work is that they “doth protest too much, methinks” and that the phrases like “brilliant review” only underscore the weakness of the positions. However, some of them feel that it is necessary to trash my work in order to trash Wolfe’s (or they just want to trash my work). Now that will get my attention. And so what I want to do here is to state another perspective. Mine.

The history of the controversies involving me and claims on Pirahã recursion begin in 2004, when I was writing my 2005 Current Anthropology paper, while spending my sabbatical from the University of Manchester, UK, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. And also in 2004, prior to the publication of that paper, when I was invited to give a three day lecture series at the Linguistics Association of Great Britain in Cambridge, about Pirahã – that was the first public presentation of my ideas (generative linguists were present there and pointed out some problems in my argumentation which were long since addressed). Interestingly, my 2005 paper mentions the word “recursion” only briefly. It talks about lack of embedding. It doesn’t say that Chomsky is wrong. It concludes, innocuously, that linguists should not treat data as a smorgasbord, picking and choosing as is common in theoretical linguistics, but that linguistic articles should be based on holistic understandings of languages and the cultures that they are intertwined with. However, unbeknownst to me while I was writing the paper, Tecumseh Fitch (who had an office at the MPI just down the hall from my own and whose apartment in Leipzig was next door to my own – we often heard each other rehearsing the guitar and singing and even played together occasionally at a bar in Leipzig, “Flower Power”), Marc Hauser, and Noam Chomsky had published a 2002 paper in Science on recursion as the Narrow Faculty of Language (FLN). When folks at the MPI pointed this out to me, I re-examined the data and concluded that not only was their no evidence for embedding in Pirahã, there was no evidence for recursion either.

Ironically, I had first discussed this with Chomsky in 1984 when my office was next to his in the MIT Linguistics Department. I was a Visiting Scientist, supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Fundacao de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado de Sao Paulo, the Universidade Estadual de Campinas, and the National Science Foundation. His then PhD student, Mark Baker, told me that the possible lack of embedding in Pirahã had genuinely engaged Noam and he was talking about it to people. As Noam asked me when I first mentioned this to him “I wonder what the consequences of that would be?” I told him I hadn’t made up my mind yet. I needed to do some more research. I did. And I did make up my mind. But I waited 21 years to publish it, because I knew it would unleash a spitstorm. I knew that because already in 1984 I was getting nasty postcards (before email) from around the world of Generative Phonology because I had claimed – contra all known theories – that onsets affected stress placement in Pirahã. It wasn’t until renowned phonetician Peter Ladefoged came to Brazil to test my claims on stress placement that onset-sensitive stress rules became a well-accepted fact to most phonologists. Controversy is not new to me. Working on Pirahã since 1977 I have irritated a lot of theoreticians. Another issue has to do with so-called “clitic-doubling,” but I digress. The point is that in my 40 year career everything I have said that deviates from orthodoxy has been severely criticized. That’s life.

But the current attacks on me are weird. Here is how they have gone:

First they take my analysis very seriously. Noone says my claims are irrelevant. Everyone sees them as relevant. Some examples:

Chomsky in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper: “Everett is a charlatan.” (I confirmed with Noam in email that he in fact said this. We ended our email exchange by each saying that the other should be ashamed of himself.)

Chomsky on film in The Grammar of Happiness (Smithsonian documentary about my work): “There is no question that the language is built on a recursive process.” (He meant Merge.) No research of course. Simply assertion on Noam’s part.

Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues, inter alia, practically stalk me on the internet commenting negatively. Everything Wolfe says about their exploits in Kingdom of Speech is right on. They wrote a very long article criticizing my work in the journal Language and I replied. Their article was basically saying that my 1983 PhD dissertation provides evidence that there is recursion in the language. My response was that new data have changed my mind. That is really all there is to that exchange, though it took an unprecedented 100 pages in the flagship journal of the Linguistic Society of America. No one said in that exchange that Pirahã was irrelevant. Because no one thought so. That is a later idea.

Second my critics now claim that even if I am right, the claims are irrelevant.

My critics claim that if the Pirahã can learn a recursive language they indeed can “do” recursion and so the fact that their language might lack it has nothing to say about recursion as a prerequisite for human language. This is a wacko claim, though many think it is an ironclad argument. They don’t seem to notice that I have talked about this exact fact quite a bit from the very beginning of my research on recursion.  I will get back to this. But essentially I am saying “Pirahã is a counterexample” and they are saying “Pirahã is an exception.” In Dark Matter of the Mind I define this distinction as a cultural issue, not a matter of fact. But the new Chomskyan view that “recursion is just a state of mind” won’t make Pirahã irrelevant. That cow is dry.

To sum up, the first round of criticisms were that “Everett is either stupid or lying. He is dead wrong, or dishonest.” This second round is, “even if he is right, and he is not, he and his research are irrelevant to the faculty of language.” But what those first criticisms show in fact is that the critics did not think that if Pirahã speakers can learn Portuguese this rescues the Hauser, Fitch, Chomsky proposal. No, they attacked me because they knew that it was and is a serious problem if any language lacks recursion (more on this later).

I suspect that the third round of criticisms will be “We knew that all along.” This all reminds me of William James’s quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.”

In just about all of my work on Pirahã recursion I claim the following: not only can the Pirahã think recursively, but their discourses are organized recursively, with ideas within ideas. Themes and subthemes, etc. Recursive discourse. Recursive conversations. Lots of evidence for recursive thinking. Interestingly no Pirahã has ever learned Portuguese after learning Pirahã, however. The only Pirahãs who have learned Portuguese (and there are several articles by Jeanette Sakel on this very topic) well have learned it by being raised outside of the village with Portuguese as their native language. Pirahãs who speak Pirahã natively and are culturally Pirahãs speak non-recursive Portuguese. Whoa. Pretty cool, right? I think so. They are smart enough. They are not stupid or backwards or genetically isolated weirdos. It is the connection between their culture and grammar that brings this about (read Dark Matter).

But does the fact that the Pirahã have recursive thought save the Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch (2002) idea that the FLN is recursion? Not really. Why not? Because if recursion is the FLN, but recursion doesn’t actually have to be manifested in a language, then in principle all languages in the world (and there are likely more than Pirahã, e.g. Riau) could lack recursion but recursion would still be the characteristic that makes human language possible. There is simply no empirical connection any more to linguistic data if this “recursion is a state of mind” view is adopted. Not only that but I have argued in several papers and in Language: The Cultural Tool that the question is not whether humans have the ability to think recursively, but where that ability resides. If it is a fact of human intelligence generally, even if it were the fact of human intelligence, then it is available to be used or not used by human languages. The human brain is bigger and more complex than other brains and the greater abilities and computational power of the human brain could underwrite human language, without any need to appeal to the concept of a “faculty of language” (see How Language Began – forthcoming from W.W. Norton).

In short, the question is not whether humans can think recursively. The questions are (i) can animals (the jury is still out) and (ii) is this ability linked specifically to language or to human cognitive accomplishments more generally.

If I am correct I have shown that the sentential grammars of human languages do not need to be constructed recursively. Merge – as a special case of recursion – is superfluous. And I have also shown that because the Pirahãs can think recursively, then if their language lacks recursion, recursion is not part of human language but of human thinking. To claim otherwise, again, is to claim that all languages of the world can lack recursion but recursion is still alone the Narrow Faculty of Language. And that is empirically vacuous gibberish. Whatever the “UG module” turns out to be, Pirahã shows that recursion is not part of it.

My opposition to the idea of UG, however, is long-standing, preceding my work on Pirahã. Here is an exchange on the Language Organ that I had with Steve Anderson and David Lightfoot in the Journal of Linguistics years ago. Even without Pirahã in the debate, the concept of a language organ is not even wrong.

  1. ‘Biology and Language: A Consideration of Alternatives,’ Journal of Linguistics, 41, 157-175. (https://daneverettbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Language-Organ-review-1.pdf)

Their reply: https://daneverettbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Language-Organ-review-2.pdf

My reply to their reply: https://daneverettbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Language-Organ-review-3.pdf

Let me summarize, then. If recursion need not be a part of human languages (and this is the claim of the “Pirahã/Everett is irrelevant” crowd), then to insist that it is part of the FLN rather than human intelligence more generally is gibberish.

Appendix: My Work on Pirahã

Below I give a list of my publications and grants on Pirahã. Most people who talk about my work show no familiarity with any of this work.


National Science Foundation: (BCS-0344361), ‘Information Structure in Five Amazonian Languages,’ (de facto co-PI with Robert Van Valin, SUNY, Buffalo), ($239,000.00; three years), 2004-2007.

1996-1998. National Science Foundation: (SBR-9631322) ‘Finalizing Documentation and Description of Three Family Isolates of Western Brazil,’ (Sole Investigator) ($219,000.00; three years). Supplemented in 1997 and 1998 by NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates Grants ($20,000.00).

National Science Foundation: (SBR-9631322) ‘Finalizing Documentation and Description of Three Family Isolates of Western Brazil,’ (Sole Investigator) ($219,000.00; three years). Supplemented in 1997 and 1998 by NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates Grants ($10,000.00).

Center for Latin American Studies: ‘Comparative Arawan Phonologies,’ ($2500.00), 1993.

Andrew Mellon Foundation Research Grant: Learning Research and Development Center, (Co-PI with Lauren Resnick, Peter Machamer, and Merrilee Salmon) ‘Rationality in Discourse,’ (approximately $2,000,000.00), 1990-1993.

Center for Latin American Studies: ‘First Language Acquisition in an Amazonian Language,’ ($2500.00), 1991.

Office of Child Development (Co-PI with Prof. Peter Gordon, Pitt Psychology): ‘Archive on Pirahã First Language Acquisition,’ ($5000), 1990.

Center for Latin American Studies: University of Pittsburgh, ‘Amazonian Phonologies,’ ($2500.00), 1989.

National Endowment for the Humanities: ‘Amazonian Phonologies,’ ($3500.00), 1989.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of Pittsburgh: ‘Amazonian Phonologies,’ ($2500.00), 1989.

UNICAMP: Field Training Course Grant (course offered in the Amazon Rain Forest), ($1000.00), 1987.

National Science Foundation: (BNS 8617854), ‘Working Conference on Amazonian Languages, University of Oregon,’ (Postdoctoral Associate), ($85,000.00), 1987.

FAPESP (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo): ‘Comparação Dialetal dos Grupos Pirahã,’ ($1500.00), 1985.

Cultural Survival, Inc.: Identification of Pirahã Reservation, Amazonas, Brazil.($1500.00), 1985.

National Science Foundation: (BNS 8405996): ‘Prosody and Syntax in Select Amazon Languages,’ ($20,000.00), 1984.

American Council of Learned Societies, Recent Recipients of the Ph.D.: ‘Comparative Syntax and Government-Binding Theory’ ($8,500.00), 1984.

Papers on Pirahã:

2016. ‘A Corpus Investigation of Syntactic Embedding in Pirahã’, PLOS One. Co- authored by Richard Futrell, Laura Stearns, Steven T. Piantadosi, and Edward Gibson, March 2.

2014. ‘Cultural Differences in Perceptual Reorganization in US and Pirahã Adults’, PLOS One. Co-authored by Jennifer M. D. Yoon, Nathan Witthoft, Jonathan Winawer, Michael C. Frank, and Edward Gibson, November 20.

2013. ‘Recursion and Human Thought: Why the Pirahã Don’t Have Numbers’ In: John Brockman (ed.), Thinking: the New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction. HarperCollins, New York, NY, 269-291.

2013. ‘The Role of Culture in Language Emergence’ In: The Handbook of Language Emergence, Wiley-Blackwell, ed. by Brian MacWhinney and William O’Grady.

2012. ‘The story of language: culture not nature’ New Scientist, March, pp 32-35.

2012. ‘What does Pirahã Have to Teach Us About Human Language and the Mind?’ WIREs Cogn Sci. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1195.

2012. ‘Concentric Circles of Attachment in Pirahã: A Brief Survey’ In: Keller, Heidi and Hiltrud Otto (eds.), Different Faces of Attachment: Cultural Variations of a Universal Human Need, Cambridge University Press.

2010. ‘You drink. You drive. You go to jail. Where’s recursion?’ on LingBuzz

2010. (co-authored with Miguel Oliveira, Jr) ‘Remarks on the Pirahã suffix -sai and Complex Syntax’ on LingBuzz

2010. ‘The Shrinking Chomskyan Corner: A Final Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues”.

2009. ‘Pirahã culture and grammar: a reply to some critics.’ Language. The journal of the Linguistic Society of America. Language dedicated nearly 50% of its June 2009 issue to a discussion of my work.

2009. ‘Interview with Dan Everett,’ In: Geoffrey Sampson, David Gil, and Peter Trudgill (eds.), Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable, Oxford University Press. (All other chapters are referred articles. My chapter is the only one to consist of an interview, intended as a special recognition.)

2008. Frank, Michael, Daniel Everett, Evelina Fedorenko, and Edward Gibson. ‘Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition’ Cognition. 1: Cognition. 2008 Sep;108(3):819-24. Epub 2008 June 10. Selected by Discover Magazine as one of the top 100 science stories of 2009.

2007. ‘Challenging Chomskyan Linguistics: The Case of Pirahã,’ Human Development 50:6, 297-299.

2007. ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar in Pirahã: A Reply to Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues,’ on LingBuzz

2006. Responding to Bambini, Valentina, Claudio Gentili, and Pietro Pietrini, ‘Discussion On Cultural Constraints on Pirahã Grammar,’ Current Anthropology: 47:1, 143-145.

2005. ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã: Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language,’ a CA article in Current Anthropology 76: 4, 621-646 (with eight solicited commentaries, by Brent Berlin, Paul Kay, Alexandre Surrales, Michael Tomasello, Anna Wierzbicka, Stephen Levinson, Marco Antonio Goncalves, and Andrew Pawley).

2001. (with Sarah Grey Thomason) ‘Pronoun Borrowing,’ Proceedings of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, Volume 27, invited plenary address (invitation went to Sarah Grey Thomason, first author of this paper).

2000. ‘Why There are no Clitics: On the Storage, Insertion, and Form of-features,’ In: Peter Coopmans, Martin Everaert, and Jane Grimshaw (eds.) Lexical Specification and Insertion, John Benjamins Publishing Co., Amsterdam, pp91-114.

1999. ‘Syllable Integrity,’ Proceedings of WCCFL (West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics) XVI, Cambridge University Press and University of Chicago Press.

1996. (with Peter Ladefoged) ‘The Status of Phonetic Rarities,’ Language, 72:3, September 1996.

1993. ‘Sapir, Reichenbach, and the Syntax of Tense in Pirahã,’ The Journal of Pragmatics & Cognition, 1:1, pp 89-124.

1988. ‘On Metrical Constituent Structure in Pirahã Phonology,’ Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 6, pp 207-246.

1987. ‘Pirahã Clitic Doubling,’ Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 5, pp 245 – 276.

1986. ‘Pirahã,’ In: Desmond Derbyshire and Geoffrey Pullum (eds.) Handbook of Amazonian Languages I, Mouton DeGruyter, Berlin, pp200-326.

1986. ‘Pirahã Clitic Doubling and the Parametrization of Nominal Clitics,’ In: Naoki Fukui, Tova Rapoport, and Elizabeth Sagey, (eds.) MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 8, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 85-127.

1986. ‘Ternary Constituents in Pirahã Phonology,’ In: Desmond Derbyshire (ed.) Workpapers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics-University of North Dakota 30, SIL, Dallas, pp 13-41.

1985. ‘Dialogue and the Selection of Data for a Grammar,’ In: Marcelo Dascal (ed.) Dialogue: An Interdisciplinary Approach, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 251-267.

1985. ‘Syllable Weight, Sloppy Phonemes, and Channels in Pirahã Discourse,’ In: Mary Niepokuj et.al. (eds.) Proceedings of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 11, pp 408-416.

1984. (with Keren Everett), ‘Syllable Onsets and Stress Placement in Pirahã,’ In: Michael Wescoat, et. al. (eds.) Proceedings of the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics III, Stanford Linguistics Association, Stanford University, pp105-117.

1984. ‘Sociophonetic Restrictions on Subphonemic Elements in Pirahã,’ In: A. Cohen and M.P.R. van den Broecke (eds.) Proceedings of the X International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Foris, Dordrecht, pp 606-610.

1984. ‘Clitic Doubling and Morphological Chains in Pirahã,’ In: Desmond Derbyshire (ed.), Workpapers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics-University of North Dakota 28, SIL, Dallas, pp 51-90.

1984. (with Keren Everett) ‘On the relevance of Syllable Onsets to Stress Placement,’ Linguistic Inquiry 15, pp 705-711.

1982. ‘Phonetic Rarities in Pirahã,’ Journal of the International Phonetics Association, December, pp 94-96.

Books on Pirahã language, Culture, Grammar, Chomskyan Theory:

2017. How Language Began, under contract with Liveright Publishers/WW Norton/Profile.

2016. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, University of Chicago Press.

2012. Language: The Cultural Tool, Pantheon Books (Random House USA) and Profile (UK). Other translations available in Arabic, German, Polish, Hungarian and Shtokavian.

2011. Linguistic Field Work: A Student Guide, Cambridge University Press Red Series in Introductory Textbooks in Linguistics (with Dr. Jeanette Sakel, University of the West of England, UWE).

2008. Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle Pantheon Books (hardback), Vintage Books (paperback), DVA (Germany), Profile Books (UK), and Flammarion (France). Other editions and translations available in Korean, Japanese, German, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Russian and Portuguese.

1986. Baako-Kasi. Translation of the Gospel of Mark in Pirahã. Edicoes Vida Nova. Brazil. (Working through translations was my first major source of evidence that the Pirahãs lacked recursion.)

1985. O Desenvolvimento da Teoria Chomskyana: Uma Discussão Epistemológica, RLEE, Lima, Peru.

1983. A Lingua Pirahã e a Teoria da Sintaxe, ScD Thesis, Universidade Estadual de Campinas. Published as A Lingua Pirahã e a Teoria da Sintaxe, Editora da UNICAMP (400pp), 1992.

1979. Aspectos da Fonologia do Pirahã, unpublished MA Thesis, Universidade Estadual de Campinas.

How Language Began

My newest book, after Dark Matter of the Mind, is called How Language Began: the Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention (due out in Spring 2017, published in the USA by Liveright (WW Norton) and in the UK by Profile Books).  What follows is the catalog copy:

How Language Began
The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention
Daniel L. Everett

In this definitive history of mankind’s most incredible creation, a pioneering linguist masterfully traces the evolution of language across 60,000 generations

Mankind has a distinct advantage over all terrestrial species: we talk to each other. But how did we come to acquire the most advanced form of communication on the planet? In this sweeping history, How Language Began revolutionizes our understanding of the one tool that has allowed us to become the “lords of the planet.” Indeed, the near-seven thousand languages that exist today are not only the product of one million years of evolution but have also allowed us to become earth’s apex predator. Now debunking long-held theories across a spectrum of disciplines, Daniel Everett, a “bombshell” linguist and “instant folk hero” (Tom Wolfe, Harper’s), presents the stunning idea that we are not born with an instinct for language. Woven with mesmerizing anecdotes of his nearly forty years of field work amongst Amazonian hunter-gatherers, the result promises to become a groundbreaking exploration of our humanity and a landmark study of what makes us human.

*Cover displayed is tentative

Overview of my new book

Pending publication with University of Chicago press, here is the overview of my new book, Dark Matter of the Mind.

“Is it in our nature to be altruistic, or evil, to make art, use tools, or create language? Is it in our nature to think in any particular way? For Daniel L. Everett, the answer is a resounding no: it isn’t in our nature to do any of these things because human nature does not exist—at least not as we usually think of it. Flying in the face of major trends in evolutionary biology and related fields, he offers a provocative and compelling argument in this book that the only thing humans are hardwired for is freedom: freedom from evolutionary instinct and freedom to adapt to a variety of environmental and cultural contexts.

Everett sketches a blank-slate picture of human cognition that focuses not on what is in the mind but, rather, what the mind is in—namely, culture. He draws on years of field research among the Amazonian people of the Pirahã in order to carefully scrutinize various theories of cognitive instinct, including Noam Chomsky’s foundational concept of universal grammar, Freud’s notions of unconscious forces, Adolf Bastian’s psychic unity of mankind, and works on massive modularity by evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Jerry Fodor, and Steven Pinker. Illuminating unique characteristics of the Pirahã language, he demonstrates just how differently various cultures can make us think and how vital culture is to our cognitive flexibility. Outlining the ways culture and individual psychology operate symbiotically, he posits a Buddhist-like conception of the cultural self as a set of experiences united by various apperceptions, episodic memories, ranked values, knowledge structures, and social roles—and not, in any shape or form, biological instinct.

The result is fascinating portrait of the “dark matter of the mind,” one that shows that our greatest evolutionary adaptation is adaptability itself.”

What would it take to show that something is an instinct?

I believe that there is evidence for instincts and innate capacities in all creatures. But I believe that the evidence presented is often weak. And I also believe that higher-level cognitive capacities in Homo sapiens are the least likely places to find instincts. If one is claiming that a cognitive characteristic is innate or an instinct, they must do the following at a minimum:
1. Show evidence for something that doesn’t seem to be learnable.
2. Argue convincingly that it cannot be learned from the womb to the time of testing.
3. Define “innate” or “instinct” so as to encompass not merely “bias” or “capacity” but also “knowledge” (depending on the specificity of your claim and mindful of, at a minimum, problems with such definitions, eg Matteo Mameli’s discussions).
4. Provide a plausible account of the evolution of the trait.
5. Keep genetics and epigenetics separate.
6. Devise a methodology more sound than baby sucking or eye-movements.

If you can’t meet these minimal requirements, talk of instincts/nativism is premature.
Almost no claim for instincts gets beyond 1. Therefore, as Mark Blumberg says, such talk is “bedtime stories” for adults. Here is one useful link: http://www.pointofinquiry.org/mark_blumberg_freaks_of_nature/


What does this mean? It means that if you see claims for a morality instinct, an art instinct, a language instinct, etc. you are reading nothing more speculation, unless it gets significantly beyond level 1 above. I am not aware of any that do.

Homesigns: Excerpt from Dark Matter of the Mind

So far, we have seen nothing in grammar, gestures, or other aspects of language that would lead us to believe that anything needs to be attributed to the genome of Homo sapiens that is specific to language. Cultural learning, statistical learning, and individual apperceptional learning complemented with human episodic memory seem up to the task, especially when considered with the arguments of Everett (2012) and this essay. Nevertheless, the literature is rife with claims to the contrary, namely, that there are phenomena that can only be explained if language is acquired at least partially based on language-specific biases in the newborn learner. One of the sets of studies that has attracted a great deal of attention in this regard is the work of Goldin-Meadow on “homesigns,” gestural languages that emerge from the deaf-children of nonsigning parents or who otherwise, Goldin-Meadow claims, has no access to linguistic input.
One thing is clear from all claims of the emergence (what Goldin-Meadow calls “resilience”) of language features in communities that are claimed to otherwise lack language, from Nicaraguan Sign Language to Al-sayyid Bedouin Sign Language to creole languages, is that they begin simple and then become more complex over time with more social interaction. Often it takes at least three generations to develop a complexity roughly like many older languages. Thus, even if homesigns etc. are evidence for nativist or Bastian-like knowledge of language, such knowledge is very limited, perhaps no more than vague biases or solution spaces (which is one way to interpret, for example, the work of Berlin and Kay (1969) on the development of color terminology from the biological bases of color perception). More importantly, what marks the work of Goldin-Meadow and many others is what I consider to be an over-charitable interpretation of the linguistic aspects of the signs and a less charitable view of the cultural input the child receives as well as the nature of the task the child is facing. Absent a serious consideration of either the task or the input, such claims are severely weakened.
For example, Goldin-Meadow (2015) argues that homesigners develop symbols for objects, word-ordering constraints, part-whole relationships of gestures (i.e. compositionality, where a single gesture, she claims, can be broken down into separate parts, just as a word can be broken into morphemes), that gestures can fill slots in larger structures, that there is evidence for hierarchical structuring of homesigners’ utterances, that homesigners use gestures to mark different modes, such as negation and interrogation, that homesigners use their gestures communicatively, and that some categories in the world are grammaticalized according to patterns we see in all or many human languages (e.g. homesigners’ use of gestures for size and shape but not gestures for hardness, texture, temperature, weight, and so on). She discusses other characteristics of homesigners’ gestures, but these are sufficient for showing the potential problems of her approach.
First note that all of these characteristics evolved, so at some point humans learned them before natural selection could have used them for determining relative fitness. Second, none of these characteristics are specific to language. Symbols – unless we are using this in the strict Peircian sense, as we have seen, are used by many species. But even if the reference is to Peirce’s theory of the symbol as a conventionalized connection between form and meaning, much like Saussure’s signs, there is no reason to believe that this cannot be learned easily by humans. In fact, on one interpretation, that is all that Goldin-Meadow’s results on symbols show us, namely, that children readily adopt symbols. The object is a form with a meaning. As the child learns the object and desires to communicate, perhaps the most striking characteristic of our species, whether an interactional instinct or an emotional urge, the child will iconically represent the object and the meaning of the object in the particular culture comes along for the ride. Children participate in their parents lives, even if without language and try to communicate, as Helen Keller’s remarkable odyssey shows us. With an ability to see or hear or feel, the child can receive input from the environment, from its caretakers, and in fact will with most caretakers and in most environments. Learning the use of the object, the salience of the object to its parents and environment, it is unsurprising that children communicate about objects, as most other species, at least mammals, do. Whole objects, as perceivable in a particular space in time, are most salient and learned relatively easily by dogs, humans, and other creatures. Humans try to represent their objects, unlike other animals, because humans strive to communicate.
The fact that some features of the objects stand out to children is not surprising, though the particular reason that shape and size win out over many other features, if Goldin-Meadow is correct, is not yet clear. She ascribes it to the child’s native endowment. But I would suggest looking first at the way that objects are used, presented, structured, and valued in the examples of the child’s caretakers. Furniture, dishes, houses, tools, and so on are far more easily arranged and far more prevalent in the environment of caretakers’ salient objects than other features. At least that could be tested and there is no suggestion that any such tests were contemplated.
With regard to the claim that homesigners’ speech is organized hierarchically, there are two caveats. First, as I have argued in my own work (Everett 2005; 2008; 2009; 2012; and others) hierarchy and parataxis are difficult to tease apart. Either may be misinterpreted as the other and they are often confused due to what might be seen as theoretical. For example, in Pirahã utterances, we might say, “The man is here. He is tall.” Or “I spoke. You are coming.” And these could be interpreted as “The man who is tall is here” or “I said that you are coming.” But the analysis is likely much simpler, with the syntax lacking hierarchical structure. In none of Goldin-Meadow’s examples purporting to show hierarchical structure in homesigners’ utterances, did I see convincing evidence for hierarchy. The second caveat is that hierarchy is a natural solution independent of language and thus if one finds hierarchical organization in some language structures, this is not evidence that there is an innate linguistic bias. As information demands grow due to increasing societal complexity, hierarchy is the most efficient solution to information organization, across many domains (Simon (1962)). Computers, atoms, universes, and many other complex objects of nature are organized hierarchically. It is a naturally occuring and observable solution. In fact, for any action that involves selectional constraints, such that you must do x before you do y, there is hierarchy. Hierarchies are found in automobiles, canine behaviors, and computer filing systems. There is absolutely nothing special to language.
The ordering that homesigners are claimed to impose on their structures is mundane. First, they have to put their symbols in a particular order. And since the main ingredients of any utterance are the thing being reported about and what happened to it, what has long been called theme-rheme or topic-comment, the topic will usually precede the comment. And within the comment, where the new information is placed, a large number of languages in the world prefer to place the patient or object before the predicating element. So if someone somewhere is eating a fruit, this can either be described as fruit-eat or eat-fruit, with most languages choosing the former (e.g. German, Pirahã, Japanese, and thousands of others). Gibson et. al. (2013) have argued that word orders may be heavily influenced by strategies to deal with “noise corrupting the linguistic signal.” They predict in particular that SVO will be more common than SOV order in the absence of case-marking. Now, on the one hand this does not prohibit SOV languages without case-marking (and in fact there are many of these cross-linguistically). On the other hand, it is not clear whether there is anything remotely like case marking or argument marking in homesigning. And yet, the basic problem that communicators have to solve is communicating new information about shared information. So the object/patient is expected, ceterus paribus to be adjacent to the verb, at least when both communicate new information – which is generally – and the subject/agent farther away. And there are only two choices, Object-Verb or Verb-Object. Thus nothing very serious should be read into finding one of these orders among homesigners.
Nor should it be surprising that once an order is chosen, it is easier to stay with it than to order objects and verbs randomly. Nor is there anything in the genetic endowment that should be applied about information structure. Topic-comment is a natural communicative arrangement. But Goldin-Meadow neglects to discuss the information-theoretic possible constraints on ordering hence misses a potential alternative explanation for her facts.
Homesigning clearly illustrates the desire of all members of our species to communicate (Aristotle’s “social instinct”). And it shows that many solutions are more common than hypothetical other solutions potentially. But not only do we have no convincing syntactic analysis of the facts, but evidence suggests (Andrén (2010); Duncan (2002, 2006); Zlatev (forthcoming)) that in fact gestures are sufficiently motivated by communicational needs that it makes little sense to attribute them to the genes as language-specific biological endowment.

Out of Africa

We are all out of Africa. But does this hold true of Homo sapiens or only our earlier ancestors, such as Homo erectus? In the second chapter of my book-in-progress, How Language Began, I contrast and evaluate the two primary hypotheses for the origins of modern humans, the multiregional theory and the Out of Africa or Recent African Origin (RAO) theory. According to the multiregional theory, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens, among others, are all the same species, arising from a very early migration from Africa and much local evolution and significant interbreeding of the various local populations of the species from around the world. The alternative RAO perspective is that there were multiple migrations from Africa but that Homo sapiens were the last of the Homo genus to leave Africa and that they drove all the others to extinction, through a combination of genocide and niche superiority. The implications for each of these theories for the evolution of language are considered are taken up again in chapter three.

The problem of interpreting the fossil record of hominins is reminiscent of that of the dinosaurs. In the past, some scientists proposed that the abrupt end to the dinosaur fossil trail was because the dinosaurs had simply evolved into birds. Other researchers argued instead that the dinosaurs had experienced a massive extinction event (now known to be a giant asteroid striking the planet and darkening the planet for years). The same question arises for the species of Homo. Did the fossil trail of earlier hominins end because they all died off or because they transmogrified? The problem that we must answer is this. 100,000 years ago, several species of hominins existed. In Africa and the Middle east Homo sapiens were found. Homo erectus lived in Asia. In Europe the known species was Homo neanderthalensis. By a period of roughly 30,000 years ago, however, this diversity had ended and only one species, Homo sapiens, had survived. All hominins after this time were anatomically modern humans.

According to RAO all hominin species originated separately in Africa and migrated separately to where we find their fossil remains today. The last species to emigrate from Africa was Homo sapiens. Our species was anatomically modern and likely already possessed language, according to this perspective. RAO proponents maintain that because of its cognitive and linguistic superiority Homo sapiens eventually outcompeted and (outright killed) other species of Homo wherever they were encountered and thus emerged as the hominin victors of planet earth.

The multiregional hypothesis on the other hand maintains that neanderthalensis, sapiens, erectus, and other hominins were all a single species, howbeit with significant local variation. Through interbreeding the species was homogenized and “Homo sapiens” is simply our label for the result. This hypothesis appeals to many people because it claims that many of the distinct “racial” characteristics of humans to the original variety of Homo that occupied the lands from which these “races” first emerged.

If the multiregional hypothesis is correct, language may be much older than the RAO theory (attributing modern language primarily or exclusively to sapiens) predicts. In fact, there is recent work that suggests that pre-sapiens Homos had language. But that, like the multiregional hypothesis itself, is highly controversial. In this chapter I examine these issues and concludes – based on a number of sources of research and data, such as mitochondrial DNA – that the best-supported theory at present is RAO + plus earlier species had incipient (at least) language.

Chomskyan vs. Greenbergian Universals

Now that my latest book, Dark Matter of the Mind: A Culturally Articulated Conception of the Unconscious, has been sent to the publisher, I plan to begin a blog here on culture and language. The first entry is a bit technical, though my intention is to keep most of the future entries a bit lighter, never very technical, discussing issues of Amazonian languages, the unconscious, linguistic theory, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology.

I have in past publications (many of them listed on this site) criticized Noam Chomsky’s claim that all languages are built on a recursive grammatical procedure he calls “Merge,” defined as in (1):

(1) Merge (α, β) → {α, {α, β}}

If α is a verb, e.g. ‘eat’ and β a noun, e.g. ‘eggs’, then this will produce a verb phrase (i.e. where alpha is the head of the phrase), ‘eat eggs’. As I said in Everett 2015, “The operation Merge incorporates two highly theory-internal assumptions that have been seriously challenged in recent literature. The first is that all grammatical structures are binary branching, since Merge can only produce such outputs. The second is that Merge requires that all syntactic structures be endocentric (i.e. headed by a unit of the same category as the containing structure, e.g. a noun heading a noun phrase a verb a verb phrase, etc.)

My criticism is based on the fact that the Amazonian language, Pirahã, among others, lacks recursive structures. One of the most common objections my critics raise is that the superficial appearance of lacking recursion does not mean that the language could not be derived from a recursive process like Merge. And this is correct.

The critics often proceed from this banal observation to conclude that I am either deliberately or ignorantly failing to understand the difference between Greenbergian and Chomskyan universals. This is an old accusation, one that I have rebutted in numerous publications, but apparently one that gives some critics comfort, as they make their living selling pieces of Chomsky’s shadow.

The late Joseph Greenberg was a professor at Stanford University and was the first researcher to make serious proposals on linguistic universals: forms or implications between forms actually observed in all or most of the world’s studied languages. Thus Greenbergian universals refer to things that can actually be observed and thus easily falsified.

Chomskyan universals are quite different. Chomsky’s concept of universals includes the notion of what he refers to as “formal universals.” Formal universals are grammatical principles or processes or constraints common to all languages – that is, supposedly following from UG – at some level of abstraction from the observable data. Thus these refer to things that cannot be seen except by the appropriate theoretician. Unfortunately, this makes formal universals difficult to falsify because they can always be rescued by abstract, unseen principles or entities, e.g. so-called “empty categories” (which frankly I find reminiscent of Kepler’s “epicycles” – invisible to all but the initiate).

Take recursion. The Chomskyan claim would be that all languages are formed by a recursive process, even though the superficial manifestation of that process may not look recursive to the untrained eye. So long as we can say that a sentence is the output of Merge, limited in some way, then it was produced recursively, even though superficially non-recursive.

The Greenbergian way would be to say that either you see recursion or it is not there.

Both positions are completely rational and sensible. But as I have said the Chomskyan view renders the specific claim that all languages are formed by Merge untestable. In Chomsky’s earlier writings he claimed that if two grammars produce the same surface strings (weak generative capacity), we can still test them by examining the predictions of the structures they predict for the strings (strong generative capacity). Since most of my work on Piraha recursion has been to show that the predictions Merge makes are all falsified, I have dealt exclusively with strong generative capacity. The bread and butter issues. On the other hand, clever lads and lasses can add epicycles to the accounts to save Merge but, again, with two effects: (i) it loses all predictive power and (ii) it provides a longer, hence less parsimonious, account of the same structures.

The Chomsky-Greenberg split is only apparent in this case. Piraha falsifies the Chomskyan formal universals predictions/account (sans epicycles, i.e. the bare claim of Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002)) and is irrelevant to a Greenbergian account, exactly the opposite of the normal dialog occurring among my critics.

I often think that the explanation for this refusal to understand why one can claim that the lack of data to support a proposal, e.g. Merge or recursion, is a serious problem, is best stated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” When folks make their living in a particular theoretical framework, it is highly unlikely that they will consider the possibility that their life-investment was placed in Confederate dollars.