There has been a flurry of publicity in the New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education about Daniel Everett's new book, Language: the cultural tool. The hype has to do with an old controversy (see a post from 5 years ago: Just the Facts) concerning Everett and Noam Chomsky over recursion. Chomsky (along with Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch) published a paper claiming that the only feature of language that might be limited to humans was a recursive structure. The exact nature of recursion is open to some confusion but is generally taken to embed words or phrases into sentences. Everett reported on a people living in the upper Amazon, the Piraha, whom—Everett said—did not have recursive language, and therefore challenged Chomsky's view of what makes language language.
I can hardly believe that Everett's whole argument against the "language instinct," using Steven Pinker's term, rests on the presence or absence of recursion in Piraha language. I've always thought that making recursion language's sine qua non was absurd. The difference between chimpanzee and human communication is not that chimps converse without recursion. At the same time, recursion is a feature of linguistic structure and it would be astonishing to discover a people who don't take advantage of the capacity. After all, recursion is a way of clarifying what you're saying: That man, the one with the red hat, made a rude gesture at me. Am I to accept the claim that Piraha cannot make themselves more clear?
Actually, I don't have to. Apparently, the corpus of known Piraha sentences includes His mother, Itaha, spoke which is simple recursion. But can Everett's argument really be so simple that this small bit of speech really falsifies his claims? A check of the Amazon page shows many blurbs from serious people, so I'm hoping that Everett's argument is more profound than the hype suggests.
I haven't gotten my hands on the book yet and am opening up this post to comments from readers who have seen Everett's new book. If I manage to snag a copy, I'll pass along what I learn. Meanwhile, I'm returning to my long commute.