It’s not what you might think it is, and this might not be the usual fare for the Grammar Guide. However, I do think that I am not wrong in assuming that our readers are interested in language more than the average person. Sure, we may write in English most of the time (if not all the time), but there is beauty in all languages. The study of language is something that I find very interesting.
I do not know if you have heard of Daniel Everett, an American missionary turned linguist. He started out as a missionary to the Pirahã tribe in the forests of the Amazon. As it turned out, his life changed more than he expected it to.
During his sojourn in the Amazonian forests, he not only discovered a culture totally different from what he was used to, but he also found himself delving into the intricacies of language. He even reached the point where he challenged the pillar of linguistics, Noam Chomsky himself.
Everett’s premise: there is no genetic foundation for all human language. Everett claims that in the Pirahã language, there is no such thing as “recursion”. I am no linguist, so I have to admit that I had to look this up, but to make it simple, recursion is the concept that in any human language, we can embed sentences/clauses within sentences. Wikipedia has a brief but clear explanation. ((Wikipedia on Recursion))
For example, two simple sentences—”Dorothy met the Wicked Witch of the West in Munchkin Land” and “The Wicked Witch’s sister was killed in Munchkin Land”—can be embedded in a third sentence, “Dorothy liquidated the Wicked Witch with a pail of water,” to obtain a recursive sentence: “Dorothy, who met the Wicked Witch of the West in Munchkin Land where her sister was killed, liquidated her with a pail of water.”
This, according to Chomsky, is an essential element of any language. And here comes the maverick Everett challenging what has been (practically) universally accepted.
Everett’s work has been made into a film, which is going to be shown on the Smithsonian Channel on the 12th of May. I do not know about you, but I am looking forward to seeing this film. I may or may not agree with what I will be seeing, but I believe it should be required watching for anyone who is even remotely interested in the workings of language. Here’s a sneak peek.