The Pirahã language — bringing more data to language debate

A heated controversy in linguistics in recent years involves a few hundred people deep in the Amazonian rainforest: the Pirahã tribe of Northern Brazil. Their idiosyncratic language has raised questions about how widely human languages share certain characteristics.

Among the questions at issue is whether the Pirahã language contains recursion, a process through which sentences (and thus languages) can be expanded infinitely. Consider the sentence, “John wrote a book.” We can add to it and, for instance, form noun phrases that contain multiple noun phrases themselves. Thus, “John and the man wrote a book” might be viewed as evidence of recursion.

Some linguists, including one who did some early fieldwork on the Pirahã, have argued that their language lacks recursion, making it anomalous among the world’s tongues. Others, including some experts in MIT’s Department of Linguistics, have disagreed with such claims. Many linguists view all languages as having universal affinities that help us understand what is unique about human language.

Read more: MIT News

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