The complexity of the language spoken for an indigenous tribe in the Amazon stuns the international academic world. Does the professor teach what he has learned and the master, what he has lived? Who is the author of that phrase?
Some Hindu philosopher? Does it apply to pirahã? Language as a primeval art and the infinite conclusions of the passionate scholars. There will always be another. See this one: “The Principle of Immediate Experience"
Universal grammar as genetic heritage?
Taking the American linguist Noam Chomsky's theory as a valid one, every individual is born with a complete grammar in their brain, to which he refers as Universal Grammar. Instinctively, as a child learns speech, they recover rules from that universal grammar that are most suitable to the language they are learning. Thus, Chomsky's famous theory develops the idea that there are grammatical principles shared by all idioms. However, precisely here in Brazil, the tongue spoken by a tribe of Amazonian natives, the Pirahãs, not only challenges such theoretical principle, but has also been the subject of endless debates amongst linguists.
American linguist studies the complexity of the pirahã language and develops new theory spurring further debates
It all started in 2005, with the publication of an article authored by American linguist Daniel Everett, currently professor of the Illinois State University.
As a missionary in the 1970s, he was tasked with catechizing the scanty Pirahã population, made up of approximately 300 individuals. Despite realizing his original mission had failed, Everett became fascinated by the language expressed by the tribe and set out to study it.
Among the many peculiarities described by Everett regarding pirahã, some facts standing out were that there was no designation of colors, only three vowels and eight consonants were used, it lacked verbal modes and tenses, numbers were not defined and, what's most appalling, there is no recursion. I.e. it does not formulate phrases by inserting ones into others, as done in sentence structures as “uncle Anthony's old bread".
Only simple syntactic formulations such as “Anthony's bread" or “old Anthony" would exist. “Sentences of the Pirahãs only express situations lived by the speaker or witnessed by someone living during the life of the speaker", wrote Everett about his theory, which he called Immediate Experience Principle"
UNICAMP linguist differs, THE NEW YORKER publishes story
Many a discord emerged against Everett's conclusions, and still do so today. The most prominent among them involves Brazilian Cilene Rodrigues, a linguist at Unicamp, who, along with two American researchers, published an article in the The New Yorker, in March 2007, contesting what Everett wrote about the Pirahãs. “It is quite odd that some researchers see recursion in the language while Everett does not", stated Cilene recently.
According to Superinteressante magazine, Chomsky, regarded as the greatest linguist alive, remains aloof to the controversy and recommends everyone's attention to Cilene's article, since he has no interest in adding fuel to a fire that shouldn't even be burning.
Notwithstanding the protests of the majority of language experts, it may still be soon to say if Everett has the upper hand on the matter.
However, one can't deny that his thesis based on a remote indigenous culture has raised some uproar within the linguistic field.