Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pirahã and the Grammar of Happiness

Various members of Team Verb have joined in the discipline-wide call for linguists to make a better case to the general public for why what we do matters and why it's exciting intellectually. But I doubt that any of us are in the 'any publicity is good publicity' camp. I'm not sure where the forthcoming Grammar of Happiness about Dan Everett and his work with the Pirahã fits on that scale. I was resisting writing about it until I saw Jennifer Schuessler's piece in the NYT this morning. I have heard little about the movie and learned stuff from her description — e.g. "a forthcoming television documentary that presents an admiring view of his research among the Pirahã along with a darkly conspiratorial view of some of his critics". But Schuessler's review of the controversy is worth a read.

And there's something in there we can all agree on: About his new book, Language: The Cultural Tool,  Everett says:
 I suspect it will be extremely controversial.
Update, 7:55 a.m.:   No sooner do I tweet that this post is up than I get a message linking this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is more partisan, but more detailed, and the gold is in the comments.


Joe said...

When I saw the Times headline ("How do you say 'disagreement' in Piraha?") I initially read it as ("How do you say 'dismemberment' in Piraha?") This caused me to immediately read the full article.

Monica said...

Very interesting article on the topic here: Be sure to read the comments, too (well, skip the nutty ones). Quote from the article: "his [Everett's] claim is difficult to verify because linguistics is populated by 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. Such divisions exist, to varying degrees, in all disciplines, but linguists seem uncommonly hostile. The word "brutal" comes up again and again, as do "spiteful," "ridiculous," and "childish.""

Anonymous said...

This fight has not been good for linguistics. Until somebody presents enough data to help decide things (which I guess Sauerland is working on), it's not a productive debate.

Of course, Everett's Romneyesque denial of everything he once believed with his whole heart doesn't make him plausible on the face of things. Arguing against him looks like a waste of time, at best.

John said...

Last week's New Scientist had a double-page spread ('A people lost for words') by Everett. This followed a previous pirce in December 2008.
The Reading Reform Foundation ( also began a thread on Everett's new book in which Palisadesk put up some useful links, most notably for me, the New Yorker piece from 2007 ( ... _colapinto).
Even The Sunday Times (18 03 2012)here is Britland picked up this story and published a review of the book by Bryan Appleyard ('The talking wars').
Everett certainly chose his language well, didn't he? Though as a former missionary, he might say that it chose him. It seems that Piraha is impossibly difficult to learn - I'd rather be a tinkermaker's bottom knocker!
So, good or bad for linguistics, the story looks as if it will run and run.

Mr. Verb said...

Excellent, thanks. I knew the older stories but not any of the new ones, and I bet a lot of our readers don't know the earlier stuff.