Dan Everett (DE) has written once again on his views about
Piraha, recursion, and the implications for Universal Grammar (here
I was strongly tempted to avoid posting on it for it adds nothing new of
substance to the discussion (and will almost certainly serve to keep the
silliness alive), beyond a healthy dose of self-pity and self-aggrandizement.
It makes the same mistakes, in almost the same way, and adds a few more
irrelevancies to the mix. If history surfaces first as tragedy and the second
time as farce (see here
then pseudo debates in their moth eaten n-th iteration are just pathetic. The
Piraha “debate” has long since passed its sell-by date. As I’ve said all that I
am about to say before, I would urge you not
to expend time or energy reading this. But if you are the kind of person who
slows down to rubberneck a wreck on the road and can’t help but find the ghoulish
fascinating, this post is for you.
The DE piece makes several points.
First, that there is a debate. As you all know this is
wrong. There can be no debate if the controversy hinges on an equivocation. And
it does, for what the DE piece claims about the G of Piraha, even if completely accurate
doubt, but the facts are beyond my expertise) has no bearing on Chomsky’s
proposal, viz. that recursion is the only distinctively linguistic feature of FL.
This is a logical
point, not an
empirical one. More exactly, the controversy rests on an equivocation
concerning the notion “universal.” The equivocation has been a consistent
feature of DE’s discussions and this piece is no different. Let me once again
explain the logic.
Chomsky’s proposal rests on a few observations. First, that
humans display linguistic creativity. Second, that humans are only accidentally
native speakers of their native languages.
The first observation is manifest in the fact that, for
example, a native speaker of English, can effortlessly use and understand an
unbounded number of linguistic expressions never before encountered. The second
is manifest in the observation that a child deposited in any linguistic
community will grow up to be a linguistically competent native speaker of that
language with linguistic capacities indistinguishable from any of the other
native speakers (e.g. wrt his/her linguistic creativity).
These two observations prompt some questions.
First, what underlying mental architecture is required to
allow for the linguistic creativity we find in humans?
Answer 1 a mind that has recursive rules able
to generate ever more sophisticated expressions from simple building blocks
(aka, a G). Question 2: what kind of mental architecture must a such a G
competent being have? Answer 2: a mind that can acquire recursive rules (i.e a
G) from products of those rules (i.e. generated examples of the G). Why
recursive rules? Because linguistic productivity just names the fact that human
speakers are competent with respect to an unbounded number of different
Second, why assume that the capacity to acquire recursive Gs
is a feature of human minds in general
rather than simply a feature of those human minds that have actually acquired
recursive Gs? Answer: Because any
human can acquire any
language. So the capacity
to acquire language in general
requires the meta-capacity to
acquire recursive rule systems (aka, Gs).
As this meta-capacity seems to be restricted to humans (i.e. so far as
we know only
humans display the kind
of recursive capacity manifested in linguistic creativity) and as this capacity
is most clearly manifest in language then Chomsky’s conjecture is that if
there is anything linguistically
specific about the human capacity to acquire language the linguistic
specificity resides in this recursive meta-capacity.
Or to put this another way: there may be more to the human capacity to acquire
language than the recursive meta-capacity but at least
this meta capacity is part of the story.
Or, to put this another way, absent the human given
(i.e. innate) meta-capacity to acquire (certain specifiable
kinds of) recursive Gs, humans would not be able to acquire the kinds of Gs that
we know that they in fact do acquire (e.g. Gs like those English, French,
Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, Inuit, Chinese … speakers have in fact acquired).
Hence, humans must come equipped with this recursive meta-capacity as part of
Ok, some observations: recursion in this
story is principally a predicate of FL, the meta-capacity. The
meta-capacity is to acquire recursive Gs (with specific properties that GG has
been in the business of identifying for the last 50 years or so). The
conjecture is that humans have this meta-capacity (aka FL) because they do in fact
display linguistic creativity
(and, as the DE paper concedes, native speakers of non-Piraha do regularly
display linguistic creativity implicating the internalization of recursive
language specific Gs) and because the linguistic creativity a native speaker of
(e.g.) English displays could have been
displayed by any
person raised in an
English linguistic milieu. In sum, FL is recursive in the sense that it has the
capacity to acquire recursive Gs and speakers of any language have such FLs.
Observe that FL must have the capacity to acquire recursive
Gs even if not all human Gs are recursive. FL must have this capacity because all
agree that many/most (e.g.) non-Piraha Gs are recursive in the sense that
Piraha is claimed not to be. So, the following two claims are consistent: (1)
some languages have non-recursive Gs but (2) native speakers of those languages
have recursive FLs. This DE piece (like all the other DE papers on this topic)
fails, once again, to recognize this. A discontinuous quote (4):
If there were a language that chose not to use
recursion, it would at the very least be curious and at most would mean that
Chomsky’s entire conception of language/grammar is wrong….
Chomsky made a clear claim
–recursion is fundamental to having a language. And my paper did in fact
present a counterexample. Recursion cannot be fundamental to language if there
are languages without it, even just one language.
First an aside: I tend to agree that it would indeed be
curious if we found a language with a non-recursive G given that virtually all
of the Gs that have been studied are recursive. Thus finding one that is not
would be odd for the same reason that finding a single counter example to any
generalization is always curious (and which is why I tend not to believe DE’s
claims and tend to find the critique by Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues
But, and this is the main take home
, whether curious or not, it is at right angles to Chomsky’s claim
concerning FL for the reasons outlined above. The capacity to acquire recursive
Gs is not falsified by the acquisition of a non-recursive one. Thus, logically
speaking, the observation that Piraha does not have embedded clauses (i.e. does
not the display one of the standard diagnostics of a recursive G) does not
imply that Piraha speakers do not have recursive FLs. Thus, DE’s claims are
completely irrelevant to Chomsky’s even if correct. That point has been made
repeatedly and, sadly, it has still not sunk in. I doubt that for some it ever
Ok, let’s now consider some other questions. Here’s one: is
this linguistic meta-capacity permanent or evanescent? In other words, one can
imagine that FL has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs but that once it has
acquired a non-recursive G it can no longer acquire a recursive one. DE’s
article suggests that this is so for Piraha speakers (p. 7). Again, I have no
idea if this is indeed the case (if true it constitute evidence for a strong
version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but this claim even if correct is at
right angles to Chomsky’s claim about FL. Species specific dedicated capacities
need not remain intact after use. It could be true that FL is only available
for first language acquisition and this would mean that second languages are
acquired in different ways (maybe by piggy backing on the first G acquired).
However so far as I know, neither Chomsky nor GG has ever committed hostages to
this issue. Again, I am personally skeptical that having a Piraha G precludes
you from the recursive parts of a Portuguese G, but I have nothing but
prejudicial hunches to sustain the skepticism. At any rate, it doesn’t bear on
Chomsky’s thesis concerning FL. The upshot: DE’s remarks once again are at
right angles to Chomsky’s claims so interesting as the possibility it raises
might be for interesting issues relating to second language acquisition, it is
not relevant to Chomsky’s claims about the recursive nature of FL.
A third question: is the meta-capacity culturally relative?
DE’s piece suggests that it is because the actual acquisition of recursive Gs
might be subject to cultural influences. The point seems to be that if
culture influences whether an
acquired G is recursive or not implies that the meta-capacity is recursive or
not as well. But this does not follow.
Let me explain.
All agree that the details of an actual G are influenced by
all sorts of factors, including culture.
be so and has been insisted
upon since the earliest days of GG. After all, the G one acquires is a function
of FL and
the PLD used to construct
that G. But the PLD is itself a function of what is actually gets and there is
no doubt that what utterances are performed is influenced by the culture of the
culture has an effect on the
shape of specific Gs is (or should be) uncontroversial. However, none of this
implies that the meta-capacity to build recursive Gs is itself culturally
dependent, nor does DE’s piece explain how it could be. In fact, it has always
been unclear how external factors could affect this meta-capacity. You either
have a recursive meta-capacity or you don’t. As Dawkins put it (see here
discussion and references):
… Just as you can’t have half a segment, there are no
intermediates between a recursive and a non-recursive subroutine. Computer
languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing
software trick… (383)
Given this “all or nothing” quality, what would it mean to
say that the capacity
(i.e. the innately
provided “computer language” of FL) was dependent on “culture.”? Of course, if
what you mean is that the exercise of the capacity is culture dependent and
what you mean by this is that it depends on the nature of the PLD (and other
factors) that might themselves be influenced by “culture” then duh! But, if
this is what DE’s piece intends, then once again it fails to make contact with
Chomsky’s claim concerning the recursive nature of FL. The capacity is what it
is though of course
the exercise of
the capacity to produce a G will be influenced by all sorts of factors, some of
which we can call “culture.”
Two more points and we are done.
First, there is a source for the confusion in DE’s papers
(and it is the same one I have pointed to before). DE’s discussion treats all universals
as if Greenbergian. Here’s a quote from the current piece that shows this (I
leave it as an exercise to the reader to uncover the Greenbergian premise):
The real lesson is that if
the narrow faculty of
language, but doesn’t actually have to be manifested in a given language, then
likely more languages than Piraha…could lack recursion. And by this reasoning
we derive the astonishing claim that. Although, recursion would be the
characteristic that makes human language possible, it need not actually be
found in any given language. (8)
Note the premise: unless every G is recursive then recursion
cannot be “that which makes human languages possible.” But this only makes
sense if you understand things as Greenberg does. If you understand the claim
as being about the capacity
acquire recursive Gs then none of this follows.
Nor are we led to absurdity. Let me froth here. Of course,
nobody would think that we had a capacity for constructing recursive Gs unless
we had reason to think that some Gs were so. But we have endless evidence that
this is the case. So, given that there is at least one
such G (indeed endlessly many), humans clearly must have the
capacity to construct such Gs. So, though we might have had such a capacity and
never exercised it (this is logically possible), we are not really in that part
of the counterfactual space. All we need to get the argument going for a
recursive meta-capacity is mastery
at least one recursive G and there is no dispute that there exists such a G and
that humans have acquired it. Given this, the only coherent reason for thinking
a counterexample (like Piraha) could be a problem is if one understood the
claim to universality as implying that a universal property of FL (i.e. a
feature of FL) must manifest itself in every
G. And this is to understand ‘universal’ a la Greenberg and and not as Chomsky
does. Thus we are back to original sin in DE’s oeuvre; the insistence on a
Greenberg conception of universal.
Second, the piece makes another point. It suggests that DE’s
dispute with Chomsky is actually over whether recursion is part of FL or part
of cognition more generally. Here’s the quote (10):
…the question is not
whether humans can think
recursively. The question is whether this ability is linked specifically to
language or instead to human cognitive accomplishments more generally…
If I understand this correctly, it is agreed that recursion
is an innate part of human mental machinery. What’s at issue is whether there
is anything linguistically proprietary about it. Thus, Chomsky could be right
to think that human linguistic capacity manifests recursion but that this is
not a specifically linguistic
about us as we manifest recursion in our mental life quite generally.
Maybe. But frankly it is hard to see how DE’s writings bear
on these very recondite issues. Here’s what I mean: Human Gs are not merely
recursive but exhibit a
particular kind of recursion. Work in GG over the last 60 years has been in
service of trying to specify what kind of recursive Gs humans entertain. Now,
the claim here is that we find the kind
of structure we find in human Gs in cognition more generally. This is empirically
possible. Show me! Show me that other kinds of cognition have the same
structures as those GGers have
found occur in Gs.
Nothing in DE’s
arguments about Piraha have any obvious bearing on this
claim for there is no demonstration that other parts of
cognition have anything like the recursive structure we find in human Gs.
But let’s say that we establish such a parallelism. There is
still more to do. Here is a second question: is FL recursive because
our mental life in general is or
is our mental life in general recursive because we have FL.
This is the old species specificity question all over again. Chomsky’s claim is
there is anything species
special about human linguistic facility it rests in the kind of recursion we
find in language. To rebut this species specificity requires showing that this
kind of recursion is not the exclusive preserve of linguistically capable
beings. But, once again, nothing in DE’s work addresses this question. No
evidence is presented trying to establish the parallel between the kind of
recursion we find in human Gs and any animal cognitive structures.
Suffice it to say that the kind of recursion we find in
language is not cognitively ubiquitous (so far as we can tell) and that if it
occurs in other parts of cognition it does not appear to be rampant in
non-human animal cognition. And, for me at least, that is linguistically specific
enough. Moreover, and this is the important point as regards DE’s claims, it is
quite unclear how anything about Piraha will bear on this
question. Whether or not Piraha has a recursive G will tell us
nothing about whether other animals have recursive minds like ours.
Conclusion? The same as before. There is no there there. We
find arguments based on equivocation and assertions without support. The whole
discussion is irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims about the recursive structure of
FL and whether that is the sole UGish feature of FL.
That’s it. As you can see, I got carried away. I didn’t mean
to write so much. Sorry. Last time? Let’s all hope so.