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LINGUIST List 18.1287

Fri Apr 27 2007

Disc: Discussion on Piraha

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Ian Goddard, Discussion on Piraha

Message 1: Discussion on Piraha
Date: 26-Apr-2007
From: Ian Goddard <iamgoddardyahoo.com>
Subject: Discussion on Piraha

Thanks for your reply Dan. [1] You're right that the proposition 'Monkeys go 
the jungle' is a generic. [2] However, my question [3] still stands since
generics also abstract and generalize beyond immediate experience. [4]
Abstraction, of course, classifies things with unique properties into sets of
similar things. [5] Take your example generic 'Fish is good to eat'. Its noun
phrase 'Fish' is a set abstracted by a speaker from all observed things such

Fish = { x | Fish(x) } , which is an abstraction.

So by simply referring to the set of monkeys (even if given a non-plural
name as you suggest), the Pirahan in the previously described context [3]
abstracted out of his set of memorized observations only those things that
are monkeys. Then he abstracted another property ('goes to the jungle')
and applied it to the NP set of monkeys over which the generic 'Monkeys go
the jungle' generalizes. Neither the abstracted set of monkeys nor the
property 'goes to the jungle' were immediately before the Pirahan, yet he
pointed to both.

Given that abstraction and generalization have been observed in primates
and even in pigeons, [6] it seems unlikely that such cognitive ability would
be lacking in the Piraha. While your research suggests to me that at most
Pirahan abstraction may be impoverished, how is stating 'Monkeys go to the
jungle' when faced with a mere animated monkey head not an example of
abstraction and of generalization about the character of monkeys beyond
immediate experience?

~Ian Goddard

''The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.'' - Wittgenstein

[1] http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-1252.html

[2] Asher, N., & Morreau, M. (1995) 'What some generic statements mean'. In
Carlson, G., & Pelletier, F.J. (Eds.) 'The Generic Book'. Chicago: CUP. Pages

Using Asher and Morreau's interpretation of generics, the generic in
question 'Monkeys go the jungle' could be expressed as the universally
quantified statement:

Ax( ( Monkey(x) & ~Abnormal(x) ) -> GoesToTheJungle(x) )

As with generics, but unlike my translation in [3], that would hold true even
against a few abnormal cases.

[3] http://linguistlist.org/issues/18/18-1184.html

[4] Ibid, see page 4 which notes that generics *abstract* away from

[5] Daintith, J., & Nelson, R.D. (1989) 'The Penguin Dictionary of
Mathematics'. London: Penguin Books.

[6] Fabre-Thorpe, M. (2003) 'Visual categorization: accessing abstraction in
non-human primates'. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 358(1435):1215-

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics

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