4/28: Philosophy forum

This coming Wednesday, in our first collaboration with the awesome Philosophy Forum, we will be participating in a lively debate on Daniel Everett’s research on the Piraha language and culture.

We will be discussing Everett’s controversial 2005 paper on Piraha, which claims that the language exhibits some properties that we did not realize were possible in human language, such as a lack of strictly defined numbers and a lack of embedded clauses. What does it mean for the Chomskyian hypothesis of a language module that there are such languages? Should this have implications in how we study concepts?

Join us as we talk about these issues. As always, food will be provided.

The paper can be found here: http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Everett.CA.Piraha.pdf

This meeting will take place at 8pm on Wednesday, 4/28, in 716 Philosophy Hall.

Please RSVP on Facebook!

10/16: Daniel Everett

صباح الخير !

On Friday, October 16th at 3pm, we will be hosting Daniel Everett, an expert on the language and culture of the Pirahã, an indigenous people of the Amazon.

Professor Everett is the chair of the Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department at Illinois State University. He has done extensive research on Pirahã, culminating in a book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. He holds that his research on the Pirahã language contradicts Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar. His newest book, Cognitive Fire: Language as a Cultural Tool, expands on his argument “that language is not innate, that there is no language instinct, and that talk of Universal Grammar or a Language Organ doesn’t match up well with the evidence from evolution, language development, or data from the world’s languages”.

Professor Everett’s research has been covered by NPR, the Chicago Tribune and the BBC. The New Yorker also ran  an extensive feature on his work in April of last year.

This will be a major event, so please RSVP as soon as possible (this is especially important if you are not affiliated with Columbia University). You can RSVP on Facebook, or send an email to this address indicating your interest.

UPDATE: This event will be held in Lerner 555.



SAIVUS is an online non-profit organization that teaches Native American languages currently spoken within the United States. Founded in 2008 by Mathias Bullerman, a student linguist at Rutgers University, it provides comprehensive grammar tutorials, word lists, practice exercises and other materials vital to modern language survival and health in order to help Native American people acquire and maintain speaking ability of their languages.

Mathias writes:

“I’ve always been very interested in American Indian and Polynesian languages, and unfortunately over half are expected to disappear within our lifetime. I really want to give something back to these languages that taught me so much, and one of the biggest factors contributing to their decline is a lack of quality educational materials.

For large languages like Navajo or Ojibwa there are plenty of workbooks
and dictionaries, and some other non-profit organizations and applied
linguists provide language materials to specific tribes. Rosetta Stone
offers internships in developing software for endangered languages, and
there is SSILA – Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the
– which aids linguistic research. Some universities offer classes
in indigenous languages, in fact if you want to learn Hawaiian you can
even enroll in an online course at the University of Hawaii.

Yet, whereas all of these options are very expensive, online tutorials
don’t cost a cent. Most people interested in learning indigenous languages
are native peoples who grew up speaking English and I feel like no one
should have to pay to learn their own language, especially since they are
the poorest ethnic group in America. Many sites direct you can go to where
you can go to learn indigenous languages, but saivus.org aims to provide
actual tutorials. The web format is superior since it has no page limit,
wastes no paper, can be updated immediately, and best of all it can
support sound files and flash animations.

While SAIVUS’ tutorials are pedagogically oriented, they are of utmost
interest to theoretical linguists since they contain ample information on
phonology and bibliographies that list previous research. Within a year,
we hope to develop grammar lessons as well. The first S of SAIVUS stands
for Society, so if there are any other linguists out there who would be
interesting in helping the effort please contact me at
webmaster@saivus.org. Right now we’re concentrating on Hawaiian, Lakota,
Cherokee and Plains Indian Sign Language, which have the greatest
potential since they are popular and widely spoken, but eventually I hope
there will be language lessons for at least one language of every region
in the United States.


If anyone has written papers on these languages, I will publish them on
the site for free. You can put this on your CV – grad schools and
employers love to see publications and plus you’ll be getting your name
out there. It’s also a good way to make native speaker contacts if you’re
interested in doing fieldwork, or meet professors who have worked on these
languages; it gives you a reason to introduce yourself. There is also a
humanitarian component; ever since I posted a small Hawaiian pronunciation
lesson I’ve received several heartfelt emails from Hawaiians telling me
how much SAIVUS means to their people. That page alone got around 10,000
hits last month!”

For more information, news and FAQ about SAIVUS, visit their website.