Monday, April 30, 2007

horn calls of the pirahã

One of the more gripping magazine pieces to appear recently, John Colapinto's "The Interpreter" (The New Yorker, April 16, 2007) introduces readers to Pirahã, a language spoken by the Hi'aiti'ihi, a tiny, remote Amazonian tribe whose unique linguistic features may challenge Noam Chomsky's theory of universal grammar. Travelling to Brazil with Dan Everett, a former missionary who, along with his ex-wife, Keren, are the foremost Western experts in Pirahã, the reporter pens his initial encounter with the tribe & its tongue:

"On the bank above us were some thirty people— short, dark-skinned men, women, and children—some clutching bows and arrows, others with infants on their hips. The people, members of a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Pirahã, responded to the sight of Everett—a solidly built man of fifty-five with a red beard and the booming voice of a former evangelical minister—with a greeting that sounded like a profusion of exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely discernible, to the uninitiated, as human speech. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations."

What the tribe does not do is use recursion, which Chomsky argues is a cognitive skill unique to the human brain & the "cornerstone of all languages." The term refers to a linguistic combining of separate ideas, as when someone states, "The monkey with the broken tail is mean." Pirahã does not permit such constructions; a speaker would instead say, "The monkey has a broken tail. The monkey is mean." After decades of noting the idiosyncrasies of Pirahã, Everett theorized that the language is created by the culture. And the Hi'aiti'ihi live completely in the present--they do not farm, as that would engender imagining a result months down the road; they do not employ a verbal past tense, & ancestors are not venerated but forgotten. "Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions--and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths," Colapinto summarizes. While I quibble with the assertion that color is abstract, this is exciting stuff indeed.

Much of "The Interpreter" focusses on linguistic academicians (all male, as it happens), & only near his conclusion does Colapinto return to Keren Everett. Perhaps she has been slighted due to her gender or because "her primary interest...remains missionary" (see for a summary of the connection between her mastering Pirahã & proselytizing); no matter the reason, it is she who provides a crucial perspective that the men with their data & their computer programs have consistently overlooked. "The key to learning the language is the tribe's singing, Keren said: the way that the group can...communicate purely by variations in pitch, stress, and rhythm." By chance, the author secretly observes a woman "intoning this extraordinary series of notes that sounded like a muted horn" as a toddler played at her feet. When he asks Dan Everett about the scene, he's told it's how tribe members sing their dreams. Fortunately, Colapinto thinks to ask Keren as well, & she excitedly explains that the woman was teaching her child how to speak. With a language as mysterious to outsiders as Pirahã, it is extraordinary that most of the scholars have neglected this obvious key to understanding.

By concentrating on the tribe's prosody, Keren was able to grasp concepts of the language that she'd struggled with for years. She began to sing along with the Hi'aiti'ihi, which eventually led to a breakthrough: " I realized, Oh! That's what the subject-verb looks like, that's what the pieces of the clause and the time phrase and the object and the other phrases feel like." Her approach greatly contrasts with, for example, that of the Chomskyan Tecumseh Fitch, whose simple grammatical experiment with tribe members does not go as anticipated, & he becomes frustrated that it confounds established theories. An openness to the unconventional is as necessary to the linguist as it is to the scientist, yet it is clear that even the most sensitive scholars allow a certain amount of cultural bias to cloud their perception of unfamiliar people.

Likewise it is disturbing that while those who study the Hi'aiti'ihi note the tribe's successful 200-year resistance to outside influences, they nevertheless persist in trying to inject bits of Western culture (examples: playing ipods to the villagers, attempting literacy classes, conducting experiments that require subjects to engage with a computer screen). Why not keep such things to a minimum rather than risk diluting the portrait of the tribe's unique characteristics?

The fascination with Pirahã continues, with Dan Everett analyzing additional data & conducting new studies even as experts in the field respond to his controversial theory that social forces can alter the structure of language. Peter Gordon's focus on the tribe's lack of a counting system, which led him to conclude in a 2003 article in Science that the Hi'aiti'ihi "cannot seem to entertain concepts of...other language[s]" has also spurred numerous debates. Many of these threads can be followed on the blog Language Log (simply google Pirahã + Language Log) & are a useful supplement to the New Yorker piece. Also, Dan Everett's personal website ( provides sources for supplemental news articles, photographs, & video clips on Pirahã.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

the city of angele

Monday, April 09, 2007

rebuilding: it's about more than concrete

Ann Jones, who has written extensively on women's rights, spent four winters volunteering in Afghanistan after American president George Bush proclaimed that the country had been liberated from the Taliban & the women there had thrown off their burqas & gone back to school. What has come to be the familiar modus operandi of the United States--invade a nation about which we know little, fabricate its past, & issue outlandish propaganda about subsequent glorious improvement thanks to Westerners--is well documented in Winter in Kabul (Picador, 2006). Jones' clear-eyed, angry reportage is the appropriate & necessary response to what she witnesses in a country hamstrung by both its cultural traditions & a long stream of invaders who have contributed mightily toward its instability.

The book is divided into three sections: "In the Streets," "In the Prisons," & "In the Schools." The first details American insistence upon fighting communism in the 1980s by supplying & training Islamic militants; Jones (as others like Mahmood Mamdani, author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, & the Roots of Terror, have done) points out that most Islamic extremists & terrorists can be traced to the Afghan War. Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid went to the mujahidin during that time--$700 million alone in 1989--& in one of many instances of dirty deception, the U.S. paid Chinese manufacturers to make Soviet-style weaponry to cover up American involvement in the arms pipeline.

"In the Prisons" is an utterly maddening & wrenching account of victimhood. Jones visits the Welayat, where incarcerated women she at first mistakenly identifies as bundles of rags in the semi darkness huddle on the frigid floor of a common room. The guards sit on the two beds, yet are not that much better off than their wards--poorly paid, they await the visitors' gifts of raisins, soap, & wool sweaters with equal need. Through an interpreter named Zulal, who initially balked at the impropriety of going to a prison, Jones interviews the prisoners & quickly learns most have been charged with morality offenses. A typical case: a man ends his marriage by saying "I divorce you" three times to his wife; she later reweds. Husband #1 finds out about the second marriage & shows up with the police to charge the woman with bigamy. She's sentenced to eight years. Almost all of these "criminals" have been locked up for "illegal" marriage, for running away from domestic abuse, for being raped, or for being forced by family members into prostitution. When the author heads to the Ministry of Women's Affairs to seek legal support, she asks the lawyers there to go to the Welayat.

"Now the discussion was vigorous and firm. Zulal translated: 'They say they cannot look into these cases because these women are bad women.'
'Ask them what makes them think these women are bad.'
'They are criminals.'
'What makes them think they are criminals?'
'They are in prison.'
'Ask them if they will go to the Welayat just once.'
'No, they cannot go there.'
'Why not?'
'It is a prison.' "

In the section on schools, Jones recounts her experiences training high-school teachers in a country without the means to buy textbooks or construct schools, & in a city where receiving three hours of electricity is a lucky day indeed. She writes of earnest adult students with "old-fashioned idealism" who are "too young to remember what peace looked like, but they want to do something to help their country attain it." Soon, however, Jones is trying to get modest funding for her teaching program & pondering where all the much-ballyhooed U.S. aid is going. She grows increasingly aware of how the game typically works: the profit-making contractors connected to the U.S. government receive massive deals with little or no competitive bidding, & most of the money fails to reach the people it's earmarked to help. She calls it phantom aid & deplores how seventy percent of the time it's given with a capitalist catch--the recipient is required to purchase donor-made products with the money. Jones' request for twelve thousand dollars is repeatedly denied: as an acqaintance at USAID later explained, she made the mistake of asking for too little. Americans like big, they like profit, & they like to put up impressive concrete structures to show they're fixing a country. They're not so good at asking citizens themselves what their needs are, or sticking around to finish projects once the glamor of press releases & news stories has faded. "Foreign aid...seems to ordinary Afghans something that only foreigners enjoy, living like kings in their big houses, driving around in their big SUVs." In 2005 Laura Bush visited Afghanistan for six hours--yes, hours-- to assist women in their struggle for rights, then pledged $3.5 an English-language prep school for the children of internationals.

After Winter in Kabul, yr. correspondent will next delve into another of Ann Jones' books, Looking for Lovedu (Vintage, 2002), which details her mission to locate a legendary matriarchal tribe in Africa said to live by the principles of tolerance, compassion, & peace.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007