Wednesday, 4 July 2007

recursive (adj.) see recursive

Daniel L. Everett says recursion might not be essential to language after all. Recursion, or self-reference, plays a central role in most human languages. It gives language its incredible power and flexibility. Parmenides exploits recursion in his famous liar's paradox, "this sentence is lie." But
Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth.
The Pirahã, Everett says, do use recursion in their language, it's just not built into their grammar. They have to construct self-reference by telling stories in which, for example, one part is subordinate to another. The modern paradigm of linguistics was framed by Chomsky 50 years ago, amd the fundamental feature is the Universal Grammar; the biological basis for language. Disagreements in linguistics are supposed to be about determining the elements of that universal grammar, not about whether it exists (although strong arguments exist on both sides of that question as well. I always found Chomsky more reasonable, but Fodor's arguments are infuriatingly hard to dismiss. Indeed, the only thing harder than arguing against Fodor is agreeing with him). In any case, recursion is one feature of language few thought to deny.

Assuming Everett is right, what are the implications? (not for Chomsky, for

For one, Pirahã seem not to count. Mathematics is heavily recursive, to the point that an elementary exercise for computer scientists learning about recursion is to formulate the recursive rules of arithmetic--counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and (this one's tricky) division.

Pirahã are an interesting folk, and it's hard to know which (if any) of their values are related to their recursionless grammar. Everett started out as a missionary, but found it hard going trying to convince the Pirahã. This is partly because one of their strongest values is "no coercion."
When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?
The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs.
In striking contrast to the way we tend to think of empiricism, however,
the Pirahã are not that curious about what we have. They haven't shown interest in a number of things that other indigenous groups [have].... The Pirahã have been in regular contact for a couple of hundred years now, and they have assimilated almost nothing. It's very unusual.
Everett thinks this is because of thir focus on the immediacy of experience: they just aren't interested in things "if they don't know the history behind them."

Everett is building a case for culture making architectonic demands on language, amd it's intriguing to turn the question upon ourselves: what linguistic demands is our culture making? Supposing we undergo a cultural change, what implications might it have for language?

To connect this narrowly to my field, what has this to say about incommensurability between scientific paradigms?

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