The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute

In a Chronicle article last week Tom Bartlett spoke of “a deeply factionalized group of scholars who can’t agree on what they’re arguing about and who tend to dismiss their opponents as morons or frauds or both.” Words like “brutal,” “spiteful,” “ridiculous,” and “childish” kept coming up. Not quite the image we linguists were looking for!

He was investigating an unusual case, nastier than any I have previously seen in linguistics: a peculiarly fractious and bitter fight originally about properties of Pirahã, spoken by an Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe. The acrimonious dispute has dissolved away, leaving only the acrimony behind. Let me try to summarize the facts of the strange situation.

1. Daniel Everett wrote a dissertation on Pirahã more than 25 years ago, and developed it into a 200-page descriptive chapter for the Handbook of Amazonian Languages, Volume 1, edited by Desmond C. Derbyshire and yours truly.

2. Derbyshire and I stipulated the list of topics that authors should cover, and topic 14 was “Subordinate clauses,” so Everett duly attempted to supply details about anything that looked like subordinate clauses in Pirahã.

3. Two decades later he knew more, and his views had evolved. He no longer thought that Pirahã had subordinate clauses at all. In 2005 he published a paper in Current Anthropology stating that Pirahã had (inter alia) no subordination and no iterated genitive determiners (as in my mother’s neighbor’s cousin’s dog).

4. This was in prima facie conflict with a conjecture by the psychologist Marc Hauser, the linguist Noam Chomsky, and the biologist and cognitive scientist Tecumseh Fitch in a 2002 paper in Science (PDF here). They claimed that humans have a “faculty of language” in both a broad sense and a narrow sense: The broad notion covers phonetics and semantics as well as the “computational” mechanisms supporting “recursion” in thought, but the narrow one “only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component” (Page 1,569).

5. Most linguists took Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch’s remarks to mean that human languages exhibit boundless iterated syntactic embedding of clauses inside clauses, or noun phrases inside noun phrases, making the number of sentences countably infinite (they say the human language faculty “takes a finite set of elements and yields a potentially infinite array of discrete expressions” (Page 1,571).

6. Some linguists close to Chomsky were furious at Everett’s direct challenge to Chomsky’s views, and began an intensive campaign to discredit Everett. Three of them published a lengthy paper in Language, mining his 1986 work for evidence that his 2005 claim was a lie.

7. However, Chomsky and various associates had meanwhile begun to claim that the Hauser et al. paper had been misunderstood, and that languages without recursive phrasal or clausal structure are compatible with the paper’s claims. “There’s nothing that says languages without subordinate clauses can’t exist,” one Chomsky follower said (see Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times article on Everett last week).

8. So now nothing is at issue. Continuing work by Everett with Edward Gibson of MIT is still attempting to determine whether “recursion” of any kind is found in Pirahã: Gibson thinks textual evidence of appositional noun phrases might argue for it, and Everett doubts that. If Everett is right, it shouldn’t surprise anyone: Chomsky’s MIT colleague Kenneth Hale claimed years ago that Walbiri, an Australian aboriginal language, was similarly recursion-free, and other such languages have been reported. But Chomsky and his associates now believe it just doesn’t matter.

9. The anti-Everett movement now has no motivation. But the instigators have carried on regardless. Chomsky called Everett “a charlatan” in a Brazilian newspaper in 2009. Two followers, approached by Bartlett, imply (one quite directly) that Everett is faking data—grounds for formal charges if true, though no charges have been filed. Nastiest of all, as adumbrated by Bartlett and confirmed in the Times article, one Chomsky defender wrote to the Brazilian authorities (Funai) accusing Everett of racist attitudes toward the Pirahã, with the result that he was banned from Brazilian tribal areas, effectively making it impossible for him to do new field research.

10. Through all of this, Everett has never responded in kind with name-calling or personal attacks on his opponents.

Back in 2006 when the astonishingly vicious attacks on Everett started, I offered some speculations on the reasons in this Language Log post. But the tussle has now been going on almost as long as World War II. Bartlett’s hints about brutality, spite, and puerility may not be entirely groundless.

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