TOMORROW: Daniel Everett

Daniel Everett, chair of the Languages, Literatures and Cultures department at Illinois State University, will be speaking tomorrow in Lerner 555 at 3 pm.

Professor Everett will discuss the culture and language of the Pirahã people of the Amazon, and how the unique features of Pirahã may contradict prevailing notions of the fundamental nature of language.

Where do languages come from? A case study in the interaction of culture and grammar

The development of languages is a process of coevolution shaped by constraints on the nature of communication resulting from hominid biology and social evolution on the one hand and the cultural values of local societies and circumstances on the other hand. This is no more nor less true for Piraha than for any other language. Because each language emerges partially from unique scales and constellations of values, there is a sense in which each language is exceptional. This means that universals of grammar should be proposed with great caution and that the idea that grammars ‘grow’ from innately specified principles and parameters should be evaluated carefully on a case-by-case basis.

In my discussion, I will make the case that Pirahã lacks recursion in its syntax and that its syntax and lexicon are partially formed by its culture in ways that are likely incompatible with the notion of a ‘universal grammar’ – unless, of course, the latter notion is so attenuated as to lose all interest. In my conclusion I make the case for a return to a (partially) Boasian concept of language, one echoed in the work of other writers, such as Nicholas Evans. I conclude that if my reasoning is correct, neither functionalist nor formalist approaches alone are going to provide the most useful understanding of languages and their development, but that a very new approach, which we can label, as others have done, Ethnogrammar, is called for.

The building in which the talk will take place is ID access only: if you are not affiliated with Columbia University, please RSVP as soon as possible. You can RSVP on Facebook, or send an email to this address indicating your interest.


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