Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
I'm not sure how astonishing this is or should be. Apparently (according to the narrative of events set up for us by the Western observers) when people of our culture meet the Pirahas, there is culture shock and misunderstanding. And beneath the observers' narrative there is even more real misunderstanding, because they use experimental methods that are way off beam (even if fun) like King Kong or animated monkeys on a screen.

(BTW, the Pirahã man was simply watching the floating monkey head and wasn't responding to the audio cues could quite probably be construed as universal, given the standard behaviour of Western TV-viewer couch-potatoes).

Haven't these people lived for generations out of mind in the same very specific environment, isolated from other cultures? Aren't our "universals" built from migration and mixing, confrontation and cooptation of cultures? Haven't anthropologists already placed these questions high on their list of priorities?

But the biggie :

what about the possibility that language may not have anything particularly universal.

I think you're referring to Chomsky, and what you mean is universal structural characteristics. Does it matter if Chomsky is wrong?

Much more, what if it is not specially different from other animals comprehension except for the cultural part.

Er, what cultural part would that be? Animals have culture, at least, they have learned behaviours. What we have no evidence for is that they have symbolic language. The Pirahas do. Their language may be oral and pitch-based, and tied to their immediate environment in space and time, (I won't say simplified because we might well find that they possess a wealth of distinct terms for what it is useful for them to distinguish), but words for river, this tree or that plant, this animal or that person, are symbolic (without going into terms like "spouse", which is perhaps what you mean by the "cultural part"). Whether language has universal structure as Chomsky proposes is one thing. That symbolic language is universally human is another.

Thanks for a fascinating diary. (It's got a date on it... ;))

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Jul 6th, 2007 at 03:53:39 PM EST
I try to convey in the diary  that actually, the part about art,a bout anrratives, about movie, and about myths is not really astonishing.. It is of course astonishing if you have always lived in a western-city world and do nto even know that once upon a time (100 years at most) a vibrant agrucultural society used to live among us...In a word.. if you do not know a jot about anthropology and human beings.

But I try to express the opinion that I indeed agree with the author of the report for the New York Observer that if Piranhas do not have recursion ,as it seems they do nto have, it is indeed exceleltn and great science 8and surprisign in the present framework).. soem other cases where recursion were put in doubt but accepted as given will be relooked.

It is like the data that makes the stuff about universal grammar interesting again...

Lychee put it better than me. either , they reorganize the theory or come up with a   good explanation.

The most intriguing part , of curse, and where I do not ahve my ideas quite clear up  is about languane in animals and the cutlural implications. It is consiedered that monkeys do indeed can get symbols... and they do refer to objects by the symbolic structure. You can train a monkey to speak basic words with hand langauge.

So, Piranahs language is much more complex than monkey, but they key difference is not recursion.. it is still the complexity of the cultural universe...

And that's what it makes the question of universal grammar so interesting... becasue with  Chomskty it somehow got slightly detached for cutlure.. so we had two sides of the same coin interacting.. and now probably allt his vision will have to be rethought.

Is there some way to say that human language is unqiue more than by the mere complexity of the culture associated?

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Fri Jul 6th, 2007 at 04:51:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
IANAL (where L = Linguist), but I never considered Chomsky's universal grammar as more than an interesting hypothesis. I realize it became a cornerstone of a view of humanity for some. My point was that it's not really necessary. You know, recursive structures are what separate humans from animals... Hmmm.

I suggest that symbolic language is human-specific, you reply (without refs) that "it is considered" monkeys are capable of using symbols. We could probably argue about that, but I don't see the point. In your example, the monkey has to be laboriously taught. It's the spontaneous generation of structured symbolic language that is human. (The Pirahas may use simpler structures, it doesn't matter).

I don't particularly care about the human/animal distinction. I'm not fighting desperately to preserve it. But I think the good old jump in the size of the neocortex produced a cognitive leap that includes structured symbolic language and cultural complexity.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 8th, 2007 at 03:46:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are some interesting subtexts in the article having to do with loss of faith (loss of faith in God or religion, loss of faith in Chomsky) and through it the abandonment of the frame through which we view the world, allowing one's vision to be clearer....

Also, on a less esoteric level, some important academic criticisms of Chomsky here, like this:

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, who wrote admiringly about some of Chomsky's ideas in his 1994 best-seller, "The Language Instinct," told me, "There's a lot of strange stuff going on in the Chomskyan program. He's a guru, he makes pronouncements that his disciples accept on faith and that he doesn't feel compelled to defend in the conventional scientific manner. Some of them become accepted within his circle as God's truth without really being properly evaluated, and, surprisingly for someone who talks about universal grammar, he hasn't actually done the spadework of seeing how it works in some weird little language that they speak in New Guinea."

and this:

When Fitch and Everett met in Porto Velho in July, two days before heading into the jungle, they seemed, by tacit agreement, to be avoiding talk of Chomsky. But, on the eve of our departure, while we were sitting by the pool at the Hotel Vila Rica, Everett mentioned two professors who, he said, were "among the three most arrogant people I've met."

"Who's the third?" Fitch asked.

"Noam," Everett said.

"No!" Fitch cried. "Given his status in science, Chomsky is the least arrogant man, the humblest great man, I've ever met."

Everett was having none of it. "Noam Chomsky thinks of himself as Aristotle!" he declared. "He has dug a hole for linguistics that it will take decades for the discipline to climb out of!"

Myself, I'm quite sympathetic to the Sapir-Whorf school, so my perception is likely colored by that, but it seems illogical to assume that the two theories can't exist side-by-side.  I don't mean to discount all of Chomsky's life's work or his theories (IANAL either) but it seems dangerous to me for one frame, one theory, one person to hold such sway over any discipline.

Everett is saying something similar about language and about theories-of-language (or, by extension, about theories about practically anything):

Everett, who two weeks ago posted a response to Pesetsky and his co-authors on LingBuzz, says that Chomsky's theory necessarily colored his data-gathering and analysis. " `Descriptive work' apart from theory does not exist," he told me. "We ask the questions that our theories tell us to ask."

We think within our frames.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Jul 8th, 2007 at 05:36:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
teaching monkeys is becoming some kind of stantadrd procedure.. int he same article there is a reference about how the experiemtns proposed was also done with chilren and monkeys... I just deleted thought it would not be interesting...

The dispute is actuallu mroe about what language mweans thatn the fact that monkeys can lear symbols.. but is symbols language. No, and that is in dispute


Gee... I should have not delated the part of the experiemtn with monkeys.

But, basically, summing up.. yes the vision of the universal grammar of Chomsky was considered more than an hypothesis.. in the sense way that the great consensus of the 50-60's joining darwinian theories and genomics still cosntitute more than a teory..but some kind of gospel at the way we look at the world.

But , while the great consensus on biology is clearly flawed and there are hundreds of data about extinctions about embryo development ,about new emergence of capabilities whcih beceom basically flat form then on, about ecological networking about early stages of life and drastic symbiotic jumps that make it clear tthat a change is going to happen in the paradigm, with Chomsly was none of it...that's why I put it like I did... no sorrow though :) I agree with you ont he vision of cultural language.. I just thought there was an universal core... it seems that this could not be the case.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Sun Jul 8th, 2007 at 07:37:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
symbols, semantic behaviors, and concept attainment.

from On Language, "On Cognitive Capacity"

There has been much discustion of the so-called 'innateness hypothesis," which holds that one of the faculties of the mind, common to the species, is a faculaty of language that serves the two basic functions of rationalist theory [competence, coherence]: it provides a sensory system for the preliminary analysis of linguistic data [performance], and a schematism that determines, quite narrowly, a certain class of grammars [syntax]. Each grammar is a theory of a particular language, specifying formal and semantic properties [words] of an infinite array of sentences [strings]. These sentences, each with its particular structure, constitute the language generated [predicted] by the grammar. The languages so generated are those that can be "learned" in the normal way. [i.e.] The language faculty, given appropriate stimulation, will construct a grammar; the person knows the language generated by the constructed grammar. This knowledge can then be used to understand what is heard and to produce discourse as an expression of thought within the constraints of internalized principles, in a manner appropriate to situations as these are conceived by other mental faculties, free from stimulus control [e.g. behavioral conditioning].

[1977:12-13, emphasis added]

UG is essentially an attempt to pair ideation to language performance rather than to deconstruct recurring modalities or to differentiate syntax. at this level of observation, in usage, "recursion" -- "internalized principles" of communication processing -- ought to be understood as an unconscious capability to reproduce and manipulate symbolic terms presented by the preceptible environment (auditory, verbal, visual) to the language learner.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.
by Cat on Fri Jul 13th, 2007 at 08:35:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There is no spontaneous generation of symbolic language. The Pirahas learnt it as children just as laborously as Koko or Washoe.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Jul 14th, 2007 at 11:30:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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