Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Everett's Pirahã and Journalism

Shouldn't we have a public discussion about this? It seems quite controversial in linguistics and touches on many issues we typically take up.

Apparently, a recent NPR show on Everett's work has been making the rounds among linguists. (That show is only available in Real audio.)

Language Log's Mark Liberman seems to enjoy a New Yorker piece on the same topic.
Haven't read the New Yorker piece yet but here's the excerpt that Liberman quotes in his blog entry on the Everett coverage.
One morning last July, in the rain forest of northwestern Brazil, Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor, and I stepped from the pontoon of a Cessna floatplane onto the beach bordering the Maici River, a narrow, sharply meandering tributary of the Amazon. 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.
(To step on the soapbox for a moment... To be honest, the tone of this excerpt reminds me of the type of pseudo-ethnographic writing which gives ethnography a bad name. I personally hope that the excerpt isn't representative of the article's content.)