LINGUIST List 15.2360

Mon Aug 23 2004

Media: Piraha Numbers/Counting

Editor for this issue: Naomi Fox <foxlinguistlist.org>


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  1. Daniel Everett, Piraha numbers, counting, and culture

Message 1: Piraha numbers, counting, and culture

Date: Fri, 20 Aug 2004 10:09:10 -0400 (EDT)
From: Daniel Everett <dan.everettman.ac.uk>
Subject: Piraha numbers, counting, and culture

Many readers of this list may have seen today's CNN report on the
Science article which was published yesterday on Piraha
(http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/science/08/19/science.counting.reut/index.html). 
The Science article reports on research carried out by Peter Gordon,
along with me and my wife, Keren, several years ago to test my view
that Piraha had no counting. Gordon confirmed that indeed Pirahas have
no concept of counting and further refined my original ideas on the
matter.

Gordon's conclusion in Science is that Piraha offers support for the
Whorf hypothesis. While I believe that this is plausible, my own view
is that the lack of counting must be seen in the larger cultural
context and that when thus viewed in conjunction with the lack of
color words, the lack of embedding, the simplest kinship system ever
documented, and various other characteristics, a different,
non-Whorfian picture emerges. The basic conclusion I reach is that
culture constrains grammar in ways many of us have not previously
imagined. I take this to be an argument against, for example,
Universal Grammar, at least the more widely-accepted versions of it.

Anyone interested in reading on this further (and the Piraha case does
seem to be getting a lot of attention from various countries, based on
my email folder this morning), my paper "Cultural Constraints on
Grammar in Piraha", currently under review, is available from my
University of Manchester website: at
http://ling.man.ac.uk/info/staff/DE/DEHome.html

- Dan Everett 
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