A most controversial man

Mavericks. People showing great independence of thought*.

Some of the greatest discoveries in science have been made by mavericks. Nonsensical untruths have been promulgated by those very same mavericks. Mavericks stimulate the imagination – they lend themselves naturally as protagonists in a stimulating narrative, generating public interest. Heroes like Galileo and denialists like Duesberg all share one thing in common: going against the grain.

As a layperson in an unfamiliar field, how should a skeptical reader interpret the ideas of these controversial figures? I have been pondering on this problem because I recently attended a lecture by Daniel Everett, perhaps the most controversial linguist in the world. Then I read his book. I even attempted to read some of his original peer-reviewed literature and academic criticism of it, with less success.

My interest in Dr. Everett was originally piqued by this New Yorker article, which I recommend as a good lay summary.

Dr Everett started as a missionary with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, attempting to convert an Amazion tribe called the Pirahã to Christianity by translating the New Testament into their language. After many years, he succeeded in translating one of the gospels, only to find that they weren’t interested. The experience resulted in his loss of faith, and eventually, the breakup of his family. Along the way, however, he became a well-known academic linguist and came to appreciate the culture of the Pirahã people for what it was.

He claims that Pirahã is an exceptional language and culture. The cluster of features he describes certainly seem remarkable to foreign ears: no numbers, no colours, no left/right/up/down, no recursion. The ability to communicate purely through musicality – whistling, humming or yelling, all without consonants (even when used, the consonants vary). Only 12 phonemes (distinct sounds). A cultural constraint against discussing things which one has not observed directly or heard from someone who observed it directly (Dr Everett’s so-called ‘immediacy of experience principle’). Seeing invisible spirits without consuming hallucinogenics.

Some of the linguistic claims fly in the face of Noam Chomsky‘s ideas, particularly the lack of recursion. Dr Chomsky is a linguist and philosopher who founded a school of thought that underlies much of modern theoretical linguistics.

Much of the problem with interpreting Dr Everett’s work as an outsider is that he is perhaps the only linguist who speaks the language with a high degree of fluency (other than his ex-wife Keren Everett). While some of the work that he has done can be repeated independently (for example, on phonology, the study of the sounds of the language), much of the work that he has done is harder for non-speakers to confidently repeat. He responds to his critics, and they might find it hard to then counter-riposte, simply through a lack of data available to them and knack for understanding the language in context.

Whatever one makes of Dr. Everett’s claims, he certainly makes interesting point about the scientific approach in linguistics. There is a surprising dearth of study of some of the most diverse ecosystems of language – in the Amazon, Papua, and Australia (perhaps not coincidentally, also areas of great biodiversity). The least-studied languages are in fact to be found there – and are probably the most interesting. This means that there could be a sampling bias the size of Mount Etna in our present data on languages. It is as if zoologists hoped to study frogs without going to the Amazon, or geneticists ignoring organisms in the sea.

So what was the result of my attempt to understand a controversial expert in a field I have an amateur interest in? Well – I have to admit, I will have to keep to the humble limits of my knowledge and say that I haven’t the faintest idea whether any of Dr Everett’s claims are sensible.

1. Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. Daniel Everett. Profile Books. ISBN-13: 978-1846680403.

2. The Interpreter – Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? John Colapinto, New Yorker, April 16 2007.

3. Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã. Everett. Current Anthropology 46(4) August–October 2005

4. Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment. Nevins, Pesestky & Rodrigues. Language 85(2) June 2009. DOI: 10.1353/lan.0.0107

*thought to come from the 19th century Texas Politician Samuel Maverick


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