Daniel L. Everett is a linguistics professor best known for his study of the Amazon Basin's Pirahã people and their language. He currently serves as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He previously held the position of Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, taught at the University of Manchester and is former Chair of the Linguistics Department of the University of Pittsburgh.
Dan is author of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, his account of the culture and language of the Pirahã people. The book was runner-up for the 2008 Award for Adult Non-fiction from the Society of Midland Authors and has just been named a finalist for the 2009 prize. His newest book, "Cognitive Fire: Language as a Cultural Tool" is to appear in 2010 from Pantheon in the US and Profile in the UK. This book further develops an alternative to the view that language is innate, whether as in Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar or Steven Pinker's Language Instinct. Dan argues that language is, like the bow and arrow, a tool to solve a common human problem: the need to communicate efficiently and effectively. His work has created furious debate among linguists, cognitive scientist, and evolutionary biologists.
Initially a missionary tasked with bringing Christianity to the Pirahã people, Dan gradually became influenced by the Pirahã's evidence-based manner of living, lost his faith and became an atheist.
NORM: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Dan. Those of us who sit all day in comfortable offices behind computer screens owe you a debt of gratitude for having done the "heavy lifting"; the tough field research. You not only lived among the Pirahã people in Brazil for many years, but were one of the few outsiders to have learned their difficult language. Do you feel that it is necessary to work as close to the original cultural context as possible--and if so, why?
DAN: It is vital to study any language as close to the original context as possible, if I am right that language and culture are one symbiotic whole. It is possible to separate a language from its original culture or to have a culture take over various languages. Finding cultural values in language, especially grammar, and linguistic forms that affect culture, requires some knowledge of, preferably direct observation of, the culture and language together in as non-disturbed a state as possible. Of course, both culture and language are always changing, so we cannot say for certain that this or that feature of either is 'original', but we can detect internal signs of change and reconstruct how things might have matched up in language and culture the way that they have.
I should say, because some people have simplified my views, that I understand both the terms 'culture' and 'language' to be abstractions. There is no concrete entity that is, say, 'American culture' or 'American English' even. When I talk about culture and language, I am talking about specific values and specific grammatical structures or regularities and what sorts of evidence might help us understand what relationship, if any, exists between the values and structures.
NORM: Perhaps before delving into those specifics--for the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with your work with the Pirahã--can you set the stage for our discussion? What was your purpose for going to the Amazon Basin, how long were you there, and what did you accomplish?
DAN: In 1968 at the age of 17, I became a Christian, mainly through the friendship of some missionaries I met in San Diego. They had worked in the Brazilian Amazon since the early 1950s and told me all about their work and their plans for returning. It sounded like the most exciting work imaginable. So I quit my (very good) rock band and began a new life as a Christian missionary in training. Since I married these missionaries' daughter at the age of 18, there was a lot of schooling and work along the way. By 1976, I was a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, with a diploma in Foreign Missions, and a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Since I had done well in my missionary training, including some linguistics, and because we were interested in Brazil, the mission asked us if we'd consider working among the Pirahã people. Their language was supposed to be very hard and very unlike any other language in the Amazon. Two Wycliffe missionary teams had worked with the Pirahãs, beginning in 1959, but no one had made any significant progress on understanding the grammar of the language. But just as we arrived in Brazil in October of 1977, ready to take up the challenge of the Pirahã language the Brazilian government prohibited missionaries from working in tribal societies. To fill up the time until the government might reconsider its decision, the mission asked me to consider trying to get into a graduate program in Linguistics in Brazil. I was accepted into Brazil's number one linguistics program of that time, at the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo (UNICAMP) and began my training as a professional linguist. In the next three decades, I finished a PhD in Linguistics from UNICAMP, spent a year as a Visiting Scientist at MIT's Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, with an office next to Noam Chomsky's, completed the translation of the Gospel of Mark into Pirahã (a professionally recorded version of which is available on my website [I will provide a link]), published nearly 100 articles and six books in linguistics, and abandoned my faith, through the example of the Pirahãs. I lived for over 7 years with the Pirahãs, in all of their villages. In addition, I have conducted research on and published on over a dozen other Amazonian languages. Eventually, I took at position at the University of Pittsburgh, as Chairman of Linguistics, for about 10 years. After that, I gave missions another try. But I realized that I could neither save my missionary zeal nor my marriage, so I went public with my lack of faith and lack of interest in missionary work and accepted a position of Professor of Phonetics and Phonology at the University of Manchester.
NORM: You have had a fascinating life, and I think your extensive field experience goes a long way toward validating the controversial conclusions you reached regarding the nature of human language. What impresses me is that you began your career with one set of beliefs, and wound up with quite another. You did not set out to contradict Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, for instance--at first you endorsed his ideas and even taught them to others in a University setting. And you did not set out to lose your religious faith, either; you began as a believer. Yet the fact that these changes did occur--in spite of your initial inclinations--tells me that you are a deep and evidence-based thinker. Your conclusions are hard won.
Please explain Chomsky's theory of universal grammar for us, tell us why it has been considered so important, and then describe how and why your work with the Pirahã lead you to conclude that Chomsky's theory is incorrect.
DAN: Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar has varied a great deal of the years. It began as a rather largish set of rules that were supposedly innate to all humans. Later it became a (n open-ended) set of "principles and parameters." Finally, after failing to develop proposals that were tight, made interesting predictions, or managed to keep the interest of most cognitive scientists, outside of a fairly narrowly focused cadre, Chomsky began to say that Universal Grammar is a "field of study," like biology. UG, as it is more commonly referred to, was claimed to be whatever it was about human biology that underwrote human grammar/language (Chomsky systematically used 'language' (a large and complex concept) when he in fact means 'grammar'. Then he settled on the distinction between E(xternal)-Language (sets of sentences actually spoken, let's say, or 'English', 'Spanish', and other natural languages--I put them in quotes because terms such as 'English' are abstractions--how could you say what English is in the world? It is impossible to define in such a way as to include the UK, India, Australia, USA, etc. and exclude, say, second-language speakers of the language vs. I(nternal)- Language, which is the grammar in an individual's brain/mind). I think most serious linguists began to be put off by all this terminology and switching, seeing it not as progress but as movement towards obsolescence. Pinker's idea of a Language Instinct fairs no better in offering precision or interesting predictions. Ultimately, it all becomes vague and definitional.
So in 2002, Marc Hauser (Harvard), Tecumseh Fitch (now at Vienna) and Chomsky proposed to capture the uniqueness or basis of the human language faculty by distinguishing between FLB (the 'Broad Faculty of Language') and the FLN (the 'Narrow Faculty of Language'). They claimed that the FLB includes the things that are useful for language and exploited for human language, but aren't definitional or foundational for it, e.g. teeth and the tongue, which are necessary for speech but not sign language and which are shared with lots of other creatures. For the FLN they proposed that there was one human cognitive ability that was the crucial leap making human language possible, recursion--the ability of a process to apply to its own output, extended to grammar. Some examples of recursion in language would be (i) to place a sentence inside a sentence, as in 'The man [that you saw yesterday] came again today' ('that you saw yesterday' is part of 'The man came again today'; (ii) a phrase inside a phrase (The big man's little boy, where the noun phrase 'big man' is part of the larger noun phrase, 'The little boy'); (iii) a word inside a word (as in 'drunk-driving', where 'drunk' and 'drive' are both part of 'drunk-driving'). Most people who read this interpreted them as saying that all languages should have recursion. In fact, Chomsky in recent work, equates recursion to an operation specific to his most recent theory, Merge. I have claimed that Pirahã lacks evidence for recursion in its grammar. This has caused all sorts of nasty reactions. I think that the reactions come because recursion was in a way that last stand of Chomskyan innatism and if it isn't right the entire edifice crumbles. Here are some quotes from Hauser, Chomsky and critics of mine (and students and colleagues of Chomsky), Andrew Nevins, Cilene Rodrigues, and David Pesetsky:
"It seems to me that your evidence suggests that the linguistic input provided to newborn Piraha kids is insufficient to trigger the faculty of language." and further "if Pirahã lacks recursive operations altogether, then it lacks the quality of language that gives its characteristic quality of unbounded expressive power. Moreover, I assume that since a Pirahã child born in Paris would speak French with all its generative power from recursive operations, and would speak English if born in London, and again with all of its generative power, that something must be different about the input to Piraha children, as well as perhaps the constraints operating on aspects of pragmatics. I don't see any of this evidence from the Pirahã, interesting as it is, as forcing a rejection of the hypothesis that FLN consists of the mechanisms that subserve narrow syntax (e.g., recursion), and the mappings to semantics and phonology." (personal emails from Hauser to me)
"Everett hopes that the readers do not understand the difference between UG in the technical sense (the theory of the genetic component of human language) and the informal sense, which concerns properties common to all languages. The speakers of Pirahã have all the same genetic components as us, so Pirahã children can create a normal language. Suppose that Pirahã doesn’t permit this. It would be the same as discovering a community that crawls but doesn’t walk, so that children that grow there only crawl and never walk. The implications of this for human genetics would be null." (interview Chomsky gave to the Folha de Sao Paulo, Latin America's largest newspaper, February 01, 2009)
And from Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues (I usually refer to them as NP & R; in the September 2009 issue of the journal Language):
"If Pirahã really were a language whose fundamental rule is a nonrecursive variant of Merge, no sentence in Pirahã could contain more than two words." Nevins, et. al. (2009: 679)"
Here is what I said in the journal Language in reply to Chomsky, and the same reasoning applies to Hauser's quotes:
"Chomsky’s remarks deserve close scrutiny here because of their relevance to the demand by NP&R that I demonstrate how my claims falsify UG and because they show the difference between HC&F’s UG-1 and UG-2. Again, we see that UG-2 not only makes no predictions, but also has little if any connection to linguistic data. Chomsky allows in this latter quote that Pirahã could be as I describe it. Nothing in UG precludes this, he says. But then, of course, nothing in UG prevents a third, a half, or even all languages being like Pirahã, lacking recursion, and so forth. This means that there is no language nor any collection of languages that could possibly disconfirm UG in the ‘technical sense’. (Interestingly, if languages cannot disconfirm Chomsky’s view, then they also cannot support it.)"
For NP&R linguists who read this should be shocked that recursion, which is a process applying to its own output without bounds, is now reduced to saying that if a language has at least three words in a sentence it has recursion. All of these quotes show two things: (i) Pirahã is indeed a counterexample to the FLN and hence to all that remained of Chomsky's innatist program and that (ii) there is little empirical or mathematical content left in Chomskyan theory.
NORM: You make a good point. Funny that in the Chomsky quote you mentioned, he acknowledges Pirahã children as at least being capable of creating a "normal" language. But what constitutes a "normal" language? Surely the Pirahã regard their language as being the epitome of normal!
Chomsky doesn't seem to understand (or at least acknowledge) that although you have found no recursion in Pirahã grammar, recursion can be found outside of grammar, in normal human discourse. You say in your book that "…when we examine the stories that the Pirahã tell, we find recursion, not in individual sentences, but in the fact that ideas are built inside of other ideas--some parts of the story are subordinate to other parts of the story. Such recursion is not part of the syntax proper, but it is part of the way that they tell their stories."
Are you saying that recursion may indeed be essential to human thought, but it isn't a crucial component of language and so it need not be expressed in human grammar?
DAN: The role of recursion in human cognition has been muddled ever since the publication of Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002)'s paper in Science. They correctly recognize that there is something special about recursion. But they never define it. In more recent work Chomsky and many of his followers have said that what he means by recursion is the very theory-internal operation of Merge, the way his current 'Minimalist Program' builds grammatical structures. There is speculation among some that the reason that humans are so much smarter than other creatures is that the recursion we need for language has jumped into general reasoning. That is one possibility--begin in the computation underlying grammar and then be adopted by the rest of cognition. Others suggest that each mental module (vision, hearing, language, etc.) has its own recursion. But I don't really find this type of speculation particularly parsimonious. Still, it is an empirical issue.
So what we have with Pirahã is an interesting example, if I am correct, of a people who show recursion in their thought and stories but not in their grammar. That is unforeseen by Chomsky (one of the many reasons there is so much opposition to my work). The reason that this is a problem is that it suggests that recursion is always available but that some languages might not use it. Why? Cultural reasons.
Some might ask why Chomsky cannot simply say that discourse is language so if they have it in their discourse, there is no big deal. But all of Chomsky's work, including his most recent, is based on the foundation of the sentence as the highest level of grammar, not discourse. Not one of his recent theoretical proposals could be adopted to discourse without severely undermining his theory, because discourse is not the 'perfect' computational system that Chomsky claims the grammar of sentences is.
NORM: You mention in your book that there is a growing consensus among linguists that grammars without recursion precede grammars with recursion evolutionarily. That seems plausible to me. As with biological evolution, complex structures tend to evolve from simpler ones. Since the Pirahã resist change on many levels, I wonder if their language is older than most others--held fast by their unwillingness to change. Does their nonrecursive language function as a defense against seepage from other cultures or languages? Is that its "purpose?"
DAN: There is nothing in what I say about Piraha that 'requires' that it be older, but that is certainly possible--we know almost nothing about the source of the Piraha language genetically (in the linguistic sense of its source language) or how long it has been separate from other languages and cultures. The lack of recursion, resulting, if I am correct, from cultural values, would indeed, along with those values, serve as a buffer against change and 'seepage'. This could be part of its purpose, but secondarily, as a way of supporting another cultural value of extreme inertia (not a cognitive limitation, mind you, a cultural value).
NORM: You noted in your book that the Pirahã have difficulty perceiving images in photographs. Having been an artist all of my life, I found this very interesting for what it might tell us about the human mind. I've taught hundreds of students to draw and paint over the years, and I found that they do much better if they are taught to not think of their subject as a thing they recognize, but rather as an abstract pattern. In copying a face from a photograph, for instance, they do better when drawing the photo upside down--because it forces them to look at shape-relationships rather than what they think they see.
This tells me that much of what we think of as comprising reality are actually assumptions which we carry around in our heads. So when you noted that the Pirahã have difficulty perceiving images in photographs, it made perfect sense: two-dimensional representations of reality are simply not a part of their world-view. I could be wrong, but this seems like a great example of how their culture has actually modified the way they think, and the way they think, of course, is reflected by their language.
What's your take on why the Pirahã don't see photographic images the way we do?
DAN: The Pirahas' lack of ability to recognize pictures is especially acute in those with the least contact with the outside world. Some psychologists have wondered over the years whether perception of pictures and other two-dimensional representations is innate or learned. Our initial experiments, described in my book, seem to show that such perception is learned, not innate. In this particular case, however, I would not appeal to a cultural taboo or value associated with the phenomenon. It is to my mind simply a lack of experience. If perception of two-dimensional representations is learned, then the explanation is simply that they haven't had a chance to learn this skill. That they can learn it is shown by the greater ability of those who have traveled to cities more often, where billboards, signs, and other two-dimensional representations are everywhere.
NORM: You found out something amazing about the Pirahã and numbers. What was this discovery, and what did it tell you about human cognition?
DAN: When I first went to work on the Pirahã language, I looked at what previous folks there had written. I had been preceded by two other missionaries, Arlo Heinrichs, who was the first missionary or linguist to work with the Pirahãs (he had had some linguistic training), from 1959-1967, and Steven Sheldon, who had an MA in linguistics and had worked with the Pirahãs from 1967-1976. Both Steve and Arlo had talked about the Pirahãs having the numbers 'one', 'two', and 'many', which was not an uncommon system. And my initial experiences seemed to confirm this. They almost always used the word 'hói' for one object, 'hoí' for two objects, and 'báagiso' for three or more objects. I didn't really think much about it. I was told what the words meant, they matched my initial experience, they were not uncommon, and I had a lot more to do than work on numbers. However, over the years, I realized that 'hoí' could be used on more than two objects, overlapping frequently with what I thought 'báagiso' mean, i.e. 'many'. I then began to notice that the words I thought meant 'one' and 'two' could be reversed. When confronted with two teeny fish and one large fish, many Pirahã would refer to the two teeny fish as 'hói' and the one large fish as 'hoí'. I got the idea that these Pirahã words didn't refer to numbers so much as relative volumes/quantities. I noticed too that the Pirahãs never count, never use their fingers to 'tally' objects, and seemed to lack any notion of keeping track of exact quantities. I was by then teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and I mentioned my hypothesis that Pirahã lacked counting (though I still said that they had numbers 'one', 'two', and 'many', but without much precision, i.e. with polysemy in each term) to a colleague in Psychology, Peter Gordon (now at Columbia University). Peter went with me three years in a row to the Pirahãs and spent a few months total studying their counting. He published a paper in Science in 2004 based on this research that he had conducted more than a decade previously. It was a huge sensation. Ironically, at the same time, and unaware of his ms. for Science, I was doing my own thinking about Pirahã numerals and counting because I had been invited to talk at a conference on Numerals at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. I concluded, after spending a lot of time reviewing all my data, that the Pirahãs in fact did not have any numbers at all. This created quite a stir at the Leipzig conference and there was some skepticism (quite naturally), since no other system like this had been discovered (though I suspect now that other so-called 'one', 'two', 'many' systems will turn out to lack numbers too). Both Peter and I agreed that the Pirahãs lacked counting, but he continued to claim, ironically based mainly on what I had told him at the time he did his Pirahã research, that they had numbers.
This interested some folks at MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences so they contacted me about the possibility of going to Brazil, at their own expense, on my next trip down, to conduct some experiments (the main researcher was Prof. Ted Gibson, along with two of his PhD students, Evelina Fedorenko and Mike Frank, who is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford). The results of the experiments we did together, published in the journal Cognition, established fairly clearly that Pirahã lacked numbers altogether (this paper was chosen by Discovery Magazine as one of the 100 most important science stories of 2008). By then, I had incorporated the lack of numbers into my discussion of other Pirahã linguistic characteristics that I have attempted to account for on cultural grounds. But whatever the explanation, the lack of numbers was a significant discovery because it showed, contra a great many claims by psychologists, linguists, and others, that numbers were innate. They are not.
NORM: That's a fascinating discovery with profound implications. To quote from the Cognition paper you wrote with Frank, Fedorenko, and Gibson: "Thus, numbers may be better thought of as an invention: A cognitive technology for representing, storing, and manipulating the exact cardinalities of sets."
On a more personal side, you have written that the Pirahã ultimately caused you to lose your religious faith. How did that happen?
DAN: The Pirahãs were not the only reason that I abandoned my religious faith, but they were the final straw, the ultimate catalyst. Through my contact with Brazilian intellectuals, via my graduate work and initial teaching at the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, I developed friendships with brilliant people who did not believe, but also did not fit the stereotypes of 'unbelievers' that are bandied about in the church. These were people with commitment, character, and depth. The Pirahãs were also people of depth and character. Their intelligence and knowledge, their strength and courage, and their friendship to me, a stranger in a strange land, were energizing and challenging. Then as I tried to tell them about Jesus and the stories of the Bible and they sat there listening, because they were friends, they would ask questions about the evidence that I had for my faith. These questions had a couple of effects on me. The first was to get me to think to myself something like "These people are really trying to understand me, because they take me seriously. But really, what the hell does what I am telling them have to do with where they are? I am telling them about deserts, and crucifixions, and sacrificial lambs and none of that is part of their all-important daily experience. Yet, rather than telling me to go peddle my goods elsewhere, most of them are kind, tolerant and respectful of my strange beliefs. What right do I have to do this? Have I been as tolerant of them?" The second effect was for me to realize that I had no direct, verifiable evidence for what I was saying, something that was incomprehensible to the Pirahãs--you talk about what you have seen or heard from someone who has seen, not some old story that just makes its way around through the centuries." All of this made me think. And then I realized that I was happier with Brazilian intellectuals and Pirahãs than with other Christians. In fact, it seemed like religion didn't produce much 'fruit' at all in people's lives other than smugness and condemnation. There were some good social things to it, but it was beginning to seem more and more like a crock. And the Pirahãs helped me see that. Recently, I have enjoyed watching Julia Sweeney's monologue, "Letting go of God" and she covers the ground I traveled extremely well, letting me know that many others have been through this with me.
NORM: I think you'll find that you are in good company here at Machines Like Us, where most of the website's contributors find no need for religious faith in their lives.
Discoveries about the brain and language seem to be happening rapidly. Just this week researchers from Johns Hopkins University announced that they have identified a specific part of the brain--named the left fusiform gyrus--which they say is necessary for normal, rapid understanding of the meaning of written text as well as correct word spelling (Cortex, Feb. 2010). Also, The New York Times ran an article about a recent scientific discovery in the predator alert calls of Campbell's monkeys, which seem to have the ability to create complex calls out of multiple elements--a "morphological" (word building) process previously thought to only take place in human language. And of course there has been a lot of discussion recently about a gene called FOXP2, which has reportedly been shown, when mutated, to disrupt human speech and language (Nature, Nov. 11). What might these findings tell us about the brain and language?
DAN: I really don't think anyone knows, in spite of all the hype, what these discoveries tell us about language and the brain. One fascinating fact about humans is that we have fewer genes than corn. In simple organisms, the relationship between genes and phenotype might be more linear. But for humans, the relationship between genes, any genes known, and phenotype (behavior and appearance) is nonlinear. FOXP2 is responsible for a range of functions in cognition, among which language is just one. I doubt, in spite of whatever is said in Cortex, that the left fusiform gyrus is only responsible for understanding of meaning. So far as I know, there is no part of the brain, not Broca's area nor Wernicke's, etc. that is solely linguistic in function. Language tends to group with other skills, supporting, to my mind, the idea that there is no Universal Grammar at all, but general cognitive capacities useful for acquiring a large set of abilities, including language. The 'morphological' process of Campbell's monkeys is fascinating because it shows that (i) linguistic structure is not unique to humans and (ii) that creatures whom no one has ever claimed to have a Universal Grammar are likely to differ in their abilities from humans mainly by degree rather than qualitatively, contra Chomsky, Pinker, and others. But the main thing I think we should keep in mind is that the press distorts findings and that the results are rarely as clearcut as reported, when the original is studied and replication is attempted.
NORM: You have a new book forthcoming. Would you care to give us a preview?
DAN: Thanks for asking. Yes, I am writing a new book, Cognitive Fire: Language as a Cultural Tool for Pantheon (US) and Profile (UK). The book is for a general audience and makes the case that language is not innate, that there is no language instinct, and that talk of Universal Grammar or a Language Organ doesn't match up well with the evidence from evolution, language development, or data from the world's languages. This book, like Don't Sleep There are Snakes, tells its story partially by means of personal experiences of mine and others in Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere. Cognitive Fire surveys research by psychologists, computer scientists, primatologists, anthropologists, linguists, philosophers and others to make the case that language is an elaborate tool for our brains, the basis for other tools like math and music. Probably language was invented just once in human history but evolves in all societies such that the form of language (grammar) comes to match the needs of its containing culture. Language was originally developed by someone like the guy on the GEICO commercials. That is, language most likely derives from the brains and efforts of normal hominids, rather than resulting from a sudden evolutionary saltation. Or to aphorize, it comes from cavemen, not X-men.
NORM: I'll be on the look-out for your book, and will be sure to let Machines Like Us readers know when it becomes available.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your candor and for a fascinating interview, Dan. Just one more thing before I let you go: That rock band you had back in the late 1960s--what was it's name, and what instrument did you play?
DAN: I played in lots of bands in the 1960s. The Offbeats was the first real band with bass, drums, rhythm and lead. We were formed in 1962, when I was 11 and The Beatles had not been heard of by most in the US, certainly not by us. We fashioned ourselves after the Ventures, my first fab four. The last band I played with was Dry Ice. It was an 'acid rock' band, formed by professional musicians in their 20s. I was 17 and they were looking for a lead singer and lead guitar player. They heard me play blues alone at the Bifrost Bridge coffee house in San Diego and offered me the gig on the spot. Many of my friends are still in music. Some of my own stuff, including a brief video clip of Tecumseh Fitch (of Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch) playing at a bar in Germany, Flower Power, can be found here. The highlight of my music career was playing on the same stage as Lightnin' Hopkins, again when I was 17.