Piraha people and Linguistics

Via a link from Tom Coates, I started reading about the Pirahã people people on Wikipedia, and it's pretty interesting. Then yesterday's Independent contained an in-depth article - Unlocking the secret sounds of language: Life without time or numbers - on the subject.

As someone who studied a Linguistics degree, the news that there's a tribe of people with their own undocumented language isn't all that interesting in itself. Linguistics academics are often going off into the jungle to discover and document these languages (one of my lecturers had studied Nupe), of which there are probably thousands. Most of the time though, these languages fit fairly neatly into the theory of Universal Grammar first proposed by Chomsky and since developed and modified by several academic groups. However, a linguist who has documented the pirahã language, Daniel Everett, has claimed that the language lacks recursion, a crucial feature according to Chomsky and other academics.

Specifically, the language would appear to be a refutation of the theory proposed by Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and Tecumseh Fitch (in the journal Science, Vol. 298, No. 5598) that recursion is a uniquely-human aspect of language and culture, and is the only element within the Faculty of Language Narrow (FLN). This theory, linked but not tied to the Chomsky 'Minimalist Program', has been criticised by Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff (see summary of the academic conversation), and is what I wrote about for my final year 'long essay' mini-disseration.

The Independent article claims that Tecumseh Fitch will soon travel with Dan Everett to meet the pirahãs, and so it will be interesting (to me at least) to see what he comes back with.