book of the week

Dan Everett’s new book, Don’t Sleep There are Snakes is now available in the UK – and it’s been selected to be Radio 4’s Book of the Week for the week of 17th November. That’s all next week, Monday to Friday, at 9.45 to 10am, or else you can listen online for up to a week after the broadcast: Book of the Week.

Everett has worked on a Brazilian language known as Pirahã, and is most famous for his arguments about what the Pirahã data tell us about the nature of human language in general. One particularly controversial aspect of his claims is that this is a language which does not show the syntactic property of recursion, but many other aspects of what he reports about Pirahã have also provoked intense discussion among linguists.

He was interviewed on Excess Baggage on 8th November (not sure how much longer it’ll be available, but try listening again here.) And if you fancy a bit of clicking around to find out more, there’s a long but fascinating article in the New Yorker from last year (The Interpreter), a more recent interview in the Guardian related to the book, and a discussion on Language Log with a link to all their other posts about Everett and his work (The Straight Ones). Also of course there are his academic journal articles, including:

The endorsements on his new book according to its Amazon listing come from John Searle and Edward Gibson – both scholars whose work I find extremely valuable. Can’t wait to read it.

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3 thoughts on “book of the week

  1. Just realising i missed the chance to explain in the original post why his claim about recursion is controversial – it’s basically just that it’s a crucial axiom of the main school of thought within linguistics (a) that all human languages share fundamentally the same core of syntactic structures, and (b) that recursion is one of these structures.

    One example of recursion in that Language Log link is where you get a phrase (technically defined) inside another phrase of the same type. Geoffrey Pullum’s example there is a relative clause inside a relative clause inside another relative clause (with the clauses marked off in square brackets) :

    [The rat that [the cat that [the dog chased] dragged in] is still there behind the couch.]

    Although that particular sentence can be pretty eye-glazingly difficult to understand, you also get other more digestible examples – eg even if you remove one level of embedding in that example, or this one that I like that’s quoted by Geoffrey Sampson:

    Don’t you find [that sentences [that people [you know] produce] are easier to understand]?

    But Everett claims that Pirahã lacks recursion, ie that it cannot be adequately analysed from a syntactic point of view as evidencing recursion. So there’s the clash – if this kind of structure is part of the Universal Grammar shared by every human language, then Everett’s claim that Pirahã lacks it poses a fairly substantial challenge to that theoretical framework.

    Still, Pirahã culture &/or language is interesting for many reasons, in addition to this relatively technical point about how best to analyse its syntactic structures.

    (NB bearing in mind that i speak as a phonologist, not a syntactician, so if there any linguist readers who want to develop/amend this, please feel free :) )

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