MPI Colloquium: Prof. Dr. Geoffrey K. Pullum

12 October 2023 15:45 - 17:00
Max Planck Institute
Auditorium 163
Geoffrey K. Pullum
Prof. Dr. Geoffrey K. Pullum, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh


Pirahã syntax, ‘primitive’ languages, and the Everett controversy





Daniel Everett has been subjected to an extraordinary 18 years of abuse for the unlikely crime of making a claim about grammar. He holds that syntactic resources like subordination and coordination are absent from the Pirahã language. Despite copious literature on other languages of preliterate cultures lacking subordination and coordination resources, his opponents have attempted to boycott him, impugned his integrity, accused him of racism, charged him with breaking Brazilian law, and even got him legally barred from doing field research in Amazonia. Some prejudice against Everett may stem from his former role as a Christian missionary, but the attacks seem primarily motivated by his challenge to the claims of Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002) on ‘recursion’. In this talk I outline what his critics did; note some of the consequences; explain the relevance of certain events preceding Everett’s entry to Amazonian linguistics; and (perhaps most importantly) show that the syntactic arguments of his critics are hopelessly flawed. Everett is the most significant living scholar of Amazonian languages, and the claims he makes about Pirahã are very probably correct. This means, inter alia, that linguists should think again about teaching undergraduates that human languages always have infinitely many sentences.

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