Chomsky famously argued that a core property of all language was recursion – the ability to include units of meaning inside other units. Anthropologist Daniel Everett argues in an article for Edge that the language of the Pirah√£ people is not like this, and might suggest that our understanding of the structure of language needs to be re-thought.
Language researchers like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are often called ‘nativists’, meaning they think our core language abilities are inherited and suggest that all the individual languages have the same underlying components.
Research based on this idea looks at the structure and neuroscience of language to try and work out the basic elements.
Chomsky and colleagues argued in a 2002 paper [pdf] that human language has only one core property – recursion, which Everett also describes in his article:
The essence of human language is, according to Chomsky, the ability of finite brains to produce what he considers to be infinite grammars. By this he means not only that there is no upper limit on what we can say, but that there is no upper limit on the number of sentences our language has, there’s no upper limit on the size of any particular sentence. Chomsky has claimed that the fundamental tool that underlies all of this creativity of human language is recursion: the ability for one phrase to reoccur inside another phrase of the same type. If I say “John’s brother’s house”, I have a noun, “house”, which occurs in a noun phrase, “brother’s house”, and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, “John’s brother’s house”. This makes a lot of sense, and it’s an interesting property of human language.
Finding a language which doesn’t have the supposedly ‘universal’ property of recursion challenges the Chomsky theory and, potentially, the whole idea that a ‘language instinct’ is somehow genetically inherited.
Everett argues that the Pirah√£ language doesn’t have recursion (or numbers and few colour names), presumably partly as a result of the particular habitat that the tribe lives in.
Everett’s article is also fascinating as it describes his first encounter with the Pirah√£ as a Christian missionary, and his subsequent rejection of his missionary work and focus on linguistics.
It also describes the culture and mindset of the people and has some of Everett’s personal reflections on his research and experiences.
There’s also a video about the topic and its possible effect on our understanding of language on the same page, and a recent NPR radio show investigated the Pirah√£ controversy in more detail.
UPDATE: Many thanks to Austin for sending in a link to an enjoyable article from The New Yorker that is a fantastic guide to the language and its impact on science.
UPDATE 2: There are some fantastic comments, corrections and additional links in the comments that are definitely worth reading. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed!