Abstractless Codes: Non-generalised Speech and the Upending of Contemporary Linguistics

If language, and its representational or coding function, makes up the world, or if, as Wittgenstein said beautifully in his Tractatus, ‘Reality is the shadow of grammar,’ what kind of world would we have if we spoke a language that allowed of little or no abstraction, generalization, descriptions of the past or the future? A view of reality that is ‘intensely and only immediate’ seems puzzling and impractical. Yet there are Amazon tribes, notably the Piraha, who speak of and view their experience in just this way. If a man goes around a bend in the river, no observations about him can obtain except for xibipio—he has gone out of experience.’ They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers—the light ‘goes in and out of experience.’
Starting in the second half of the last century, it became gospel in linguistics, the philosophy of mind and anthropology to hold that the cohering and time-continuity function of the mind was a result of the ‘deep structure’ of all languages, a Universal Grammar (‘UG’) which allowed for expressing abstractions through a process called ‘recursion.’ Defined roughly as ‘the ability to create complex structures out of simple structures,’ a recursive language would take the fact that (1) there exists a man who is a hunter; (2) and who kills jaguars; (3) and who eats pig meat and express it in the sentence ‘The very man who shoots jaguars himself eats pig meat.’ But in Piraha no overlapping of phrases occurs. They would say only ‘There is a man. He is a hunter who kills jaguars. He eats pig meat.’ Chomsky, Hauser, Fitch: ‘The Faculty of Language,’ Science, 2002.
If recursion is what Chomsky has called ‘the essential property of language,’ and a significant body of tribal languages are found in which there is no ‘interior coding’ or recursion, then either (1) Chomsky is wrong; (2) the tribal languages are anomalous and still explainable within the paradigm; or (3) we [ethnologists, anthropological linguists] are misunderstanding the mechanics of the tribal language.
Chomsky’s great detractor in the UG view of natural languages and codes, and thus of perception, is one Daniel Everett, a former linguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the world’s experts on Amazonian triabal languages. The limitations of Chomsky’s explanatory model first came clear when Everett sat down with a group of Amazonian Piraha in 1992. He wanted to study their concepts of quantity, and of expressing primitive quantity assessments. He gathered a group of Piraha elders in front of him, and between the group and himself placed a group of objects—nuts, batteries, pea pods. The Piraha could perform the task of identifying and expressing quantities when two or three objects were concerned, but not when any more were introduced into the experiment. In fact, the Piraha do not have words for numbers above two, and are thus greatly challenged in the expression of large quantities. Gordon, ‘Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence From Amazonia.’ (1997); Evans & Levinson: ‘The Myth of Language Universals.’ Proceedings of the Australian National University.
Everett soon hypothesized a much less hard-wired and much more cultural/environment explanation of why the Piraha, and indeed any potential language speakers, may not have signifiers or codes for colors, quantifications, numbers, or myths and stories. He posited the Piraha word xibipio to frame how the tribe perceived reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of immediate experience—anything (and only things) they can see and hear, and that someone living has seen and heard and that person is, as we say in the law, ‘available as a percipient witness.’
But how can life be lived entirely within this extreme (what Everett calls) “immediacy-of-experience” principle? Everett’s explanation is somewhat pedestrian, but not uninteresting. He sees embedding entities within entities as simply the way humans organize information, something that is found in all human intelligence systems. There is no specific linguistic principle for this—no ‘Universal Grammar’ or ‘deep structure of syntax’ per Chomsky—simply because concept-bundling is a general feature of cognition. As Everett put it, “The ability to put thoughts inside of other thoughts is just the way humans are, because we’re smarter than other species. The Piraha have this cognitive trait . . . . but it is absent from their syntax because of cultural restraints.’ Everett: Language: The Cultural Tool (Pantheon 2012).
The Piraha’s cultural, learned absence of abstraction-expressions and remote time descriptions in no way detract from their ability to function in their jungle domain. They are “supremely gifted in all the ways necessary to insure continued survival in the jungle: they know the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area; they understand the behavior of local animals and how to catch and avoid them; and they can walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts and small game.” Colapinto, ‘The Interpreter,’ (profile of Everett) The New Yorker, April 2007.
So one can have recursive cognition (i.e., be truly and fully human), but simply not have a recursive language. The reason is that the language does not have to service a culture in which abstractions are utilized in large portions of experience. There is a powerful, transcendental immediacy to the observations that the Piraha need to get things done in a day’s time. Since they do not have myths or stories that deal with past experience, or experience they do not immediately see, Everett has it that the insertion of phrases inside one another simply has no function in an entirely present-tense consciousness. Such a form of thinking states thoughts only in discrete units. The Piraha would never say “I saw the dog that was down by the river get bitten by the snake” simply because there is no use recording such events. They could conceive of a response to only an immediate experience statement, something like “Why is the dog by the river there howling so loud with pain?” They would say, instead of the recursive phrase above, “I saw the dog. The dog was at the river. A snake bit the dog.” Because the Piraha accept as real only observation statements (things they can verify in their immediate visual field) they have no use for embedded clauses like “that was down by the river.” Recursive functions are not observation statements, but rather supporting, quantifying, or qualifying propositions. In other words, they are abstractions, generalities.
The cognitive urge—the philosophical urge—to ground the world it what is observable and immediately verifiable is not only a feature of primitive societies. The Logical Positivist philosophers of between-the-wars Vienna also believed in a “verification principle” much like what precludes recursive structures from Piraha language. While Wittgenstein saw a lot to admire in the Positivists, he thought verificationism was going too far, even in his early, later discarded masterpiece, the Tractatus Logio-Philosophicus. And in his final word on language, the later, fascinatingly anthropological aphorisms of the Philosophical Investigations, he came to a view of speech as a largely cultural construct (and not hard-wired), and as a derivative perceptual tool, not unlike Everett’s. He was ultimately a conventionalist and not a nativist. There could be a ‘language instinct’ as modern scholars have defined it, but it was guided entirely by environmental forces.
Wittgenstein asks us in the PI to imagine a tribe like Everett’s Piraha, a people who never have occasion to deal with quantities larger than can be marketed and exchanged within the ground space directly in front of them. Their entire concept of ‘amount’ or ‘quantity’ could be anchored solely to how much ground something covers. Explanations of another concept of quantity would be lost on them, and would lead to humorous communicative puzzles. Imagine the impossibility of imparting to them our notion of amounts. Suppose one were standing in their market and had fifty blocks of wood sitting next to one hundred blocks of wood, both being the same quantity (to them) simply because they each occupied the same threefoot square portion of ground. Once you took the hundred piece bunch and spread it around to demonstrate that that pile constituted more wood, they would agree only because it covered more ground.
So there is now a more robust view of how language coding, and the core grammar behind it, can be something very, very much cultural and environmental. The Swiss linguist Michael Tomasello, commenting on Everett’s papers, said recently: “Because the Piraha talk about different things [than we do], different things get grammaticalized.” He added that “[U]niversal grammar was a good try, and it really was not so implausible at the time it was proposed, but since then we have learned a lot about many different languages, and they simply do not fit one universal cookie cutter.”
Brent Berlin, a cognitive anthropologist at the University of Georgia, also commented on the richness and originality of Everett’s approach, and said: “It [Chomsky’s UG] acts as if, in some inexplicable way, almost mysteriously, language is hermetically sealed from the conditions of life of the people who use it to communicate. But this is not some kind of an abstract, beautiful, mathematical, symbolic system that is not related to real life.”
Signifiers, linguistic coding, things standing for other things: they are not the crystalline grid that Chomsky and (the early) Wittgenstein thought they were. They do not spring up out of the mind in isolation from communicative immersion. They live and breathe, are learned and forgotten and learned again, and shift from one set of denoted objects to the other. Like the Piraha man walking around the bend in the river, they “pass in and out of existence.”

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