Monday, August 23, 2004

Pirahã language

Several media outlets have a story such as this one regarding the oddities of the Pirahã language. The language has no words for numbers or colours, and embedding is not possible within the constraints of the language. Pirahã natives are unable to learn to count or do simple arithmetic, which has led to a revival of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that certain thoughts are inaccessible to speakers of certain languages.

Why must one's language be brought into an explanation at all? Here's an alternate hypothesis: the concepts of numbers and arithmetic must be learned as a child; having missed the opportunity to acquire these skills at an early age, one cannot acquire them later in life, independent of language. This is not as odd an explanation as it might sound. People who are born blind but have eyesight restored later in life (as through surgery) often are overwhelmed by the input, since they haven't had the opportunity to develop the part of their brain that processes visual input. What if there is a "counting organ" in the brain, much the same way that there is a "language organ" that needs to be developed in childhood? The strange case of the Pirahã doesn't offer a chance to distinguish between these hypotheses. A culture that is innumerate would necessarily speak a numberless language, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis doesn't need to be invoked to explain their innumeracy.


Blogger finou said...

The article says they tried to learn numbers so that they wouldn't be cheated in business. How do they do business with other peoples if they can't count at all then?

8/23/2004 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Neat story. I agree that there are alternative explanations. I get very annoyed at people pretending to be "scientific" when they make claims like this. I try to go a little easy on them and admit there's the possibility that a poor journalist made them sound dumb. However, I'm afraid that I'm often being overly optimistic. Back as an undergraduate I took a class in psycholinguistics, and that field was filled with papers which constructed two dumb hypotheses, did an experiment, and then claimed that one was ruled out, so the other was the correct "model". Really annoying.

8/24/2004 10:18:00 PM  

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