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.

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