Monday, May 28, 2007

Holmberg's Mistake: More on Everett and Pirahã

The media buzz has died down now on the claims by Dan Everett about Pirahã since the New Yorker piece, but Everett's views continue to haunt me, in part because of the kind of exoticization of these people and their language and in part because what he claims just seems so unlikely to be true. With those two elements, it somehow called to mind the questions of a hoax about the Tasaday (overview here).

By chance, I just started reading Charles Mann's 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Mann is a science journalist, and the book got basically positive reviews from what I've seen, like this one on H-NET, although it's not so much 'new revelations' but as synthesis of scholarly work, including by Alfred Crosby and Wisconsin's own Bill Cronon. His first chapter is called "Holmberg's mistake", which is named (the quote is from an interview with Indian Country Today, here.) :
… after an anthropologist who described one group of very poor, hunting-and-gathering South American Indians as a timeless remnant of the Stone Age when they were in fact a persecuted people who had been driven into the forest by brutal ranchers.
This point is a major theme of the book. Holmberg was working with the Sirionó. Mann gives a long synopsis of Holmberg's work, including this (p. 9):
they had no clothes, no domestic animals, no musical instruments (not even rattles and drums", no art or design (except necklaces of animal teeth), and amost no religion (the Sirionó "conception of the universe" was "almost completely uncrystallized"). Incredibly, they could not count beyond three or make fire … .
It turns out, these people were the last remnants of a much larger community that had been killed by epidemics, and driven into the forest by ranchers. According to Mann, they lost 95% of their population within a generation, resulting in a population so small that people were forced to mate with relatives.

Sound familiar? This matches the New Yorker description of the Pirahã remarkably well. Holmberg's conclusion that they were holdovers of the Stone Age was, Mann writes, "as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and had concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving." In poking around a little, I see only one place where somebody's made a direct connection between these two stories (it's a brief comment, here). But similar reactions to Everett's stuff is out there (like here).

I can't judge the correctness of Everett's claims about the Pirahã language, but you have to be bothered by a portrayal that follows these old cliches so closely. It's like he's pulled out this stuff just to raise some hell about generative grammar. There are plenty of serious questions about generative grammar, but the productive discussions lie elsewhere.


alienvoord said...

Very interesting. But surely the lack-of-recursion thing is important, if it's true? I guess the problem is that Everett is one of the only linguists who knows anything about the language.

Mr. Verb said...

Absolutely agreed ... with "if it's true" being crucial. If you've read the Nevins et al. piece on LingBuzz, that seems like a big 'if'.

Mann talks about how long it was after Holmberg before other anthropologists were able to see the situation for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The difficulty of learning this language may mean it's a long time before we have really good, independent evidence.