Dan Everett (DE) has written once again on his views about Piraha, recursion, and the implications for Universal Grammar (here). I was strongly tempted to avoid posting on it for it adds nothing new of substance to the discussion (and will almost certainly serve to keep the silliness alive), beyond a healthy dose of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. It makes the same mistakes, in almost the same way, and adds a few more irrelevancies to the mix. If history surfaces first as tragedy and the second time as farce (see here) then pseudo debates in their moth eaten n-th iteration are just pathetic. The Piraha “debate” has long since passed its sell-by date. As I’ve said all that I am about to say before, I would urge you not to expend time or energy reading this. But if you are the kind of person who slows down to rubberneck a wreck on the road and can’t help but find the ghoulish fascinating, this post is for you.
The DE piece makes several points.
First, that there is a debate. As you all know this is wrong. There can be no debate if the controversy hinges on an equivocation. And it does, for what the DE piece claims about the G of Piraha, even if completely accurate (which I doubt, but the facts are beyond my expertise) has no bearing on Chomsky’s proposal, viz. that recursion is the only distinctively linguistic feature of FL. This is a logical point, not an empirical one. More exactly, the controversy rests on an equivocation concerning the notion “universal.” The equivocation has been a consistent feature of DE’s discussions and this piece is no different. Let me once again explain the logic.
Chomsky’s proposal rests on a few observations. First, that humans display linguistic creativity. Second, that humans are only accidentally native speakers of their native languages.
The first observation is manifest in the fact that, for example, a native speaker of English, can effortlessly use and understand an unbounded number of linguistic expressions never before encountered. The second is manifest in the observation that a child deposited in any linguistic community will grow up to be a linguistically competent native speaker of that language with linguistic capacities indistinguishable from any of the other native speakers (e.g. wrt his/her linguistic creativity).
These two observations prompt some questions.
First, what underlying mental architecture is required to allow for the linguistic creativity we find in humans? Answer 1 a mind that has recursive rules able to generate ever more sophisticated expressions from simple building blocks (aka, a G). Question 2: what kind of mental architecture must a such a G competent being have? Answer 2: a mind that can acquire recursive rules (i.e a G) from products of those rules (i.e. generated examples of the G). Why recursive rules? Because linguistic productivity just names the fact that human speakers are competent with respect to an unbounded number of different linguistic expressions.
Second, why assume that the capacity to acquire recursive Gs is a feature of human minds in general rather than simply a feature of those human minds that have actually acquired recursive Gs? Answer: Because any human can acquire any G that generates any language. So the capacity to acquire language in general requires the meta-capacity to acquire recursive rule systems (aka, Gs). As this meta-capacity seems to be restricted to humans (i.e. so far as we know only humans display the kind of recursive capacity manifested in linguistic creativity) and as this capacity is most clearly manifest in language then Chomsky’s conjecture is that if there is anything linguistically specific about the human capacity to acquire language the linguistic specificity resides in this recursive meta-capacity. Or to put this another way: there may be more to the human capacity to acquire language than the recursive meta-capacity but at least this meta capacity is part of the story. Or, to put this another way, absent the human given (i.e. innate) meta-capacity to acquire (certain specifiable kinds of) recursive Gs, humans would not be able to acquire the kinds of Gs that we know that they in fact do acquire (e.g. Gs like those English, French, Spanish, Tagalog, Arabic, Inuit, Chinese … speakers have in fact acquired). Hence, humans must come equipped with this recursive meta-capacity as part of FL.
Ok, some observations: recursion in this story is principally a predicate of FL, the meta-capacity. The meta-capacity is to acquire recursive Gs (with specific properties that GG has been in the business of identifying for the last 50 years or so). The conjecture is that humans have this meta-capacity (aka FL) because they do in fact display linguistic creativity (and, as the DE paper concedes, native speakers of non-Piraha do regularly display linguistic creativity implicating the internalization of recursive language specific Gs) and because the linguistic creativity a native speaker of (e.g.) English displays could have been displayed by any person raised in an English linguistic milieu. In sum, FL is recursive in the sense that it has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs and speakers of any language have such FLs.
Observe that FL must have the capacity to acquire recursive Gs even if not all human Gs are recursive. FL must have this capacity because all agree that many/most (e.g.) non-Piraha Gs are recursive in the sense that Piraha is claimed not to be. So, the following two claims are consistent: (1) some languages have non-recursive Gs but (2) native speakers of those languages have recursive FLs. This DE piece (like all the other DE papers on this topic) fails, once again, to recognize this. A discontinuous quote (4):
If there were a language that chose not to use recursion, it would at the very least be curious and at most would mean that Chomsky’s entire conception of language/grammar is wrong….
Chomsky made a clear claim –recursion is fundamental to having a language. And my paper did in fact present a counterexample. Recursion cannot be fundamental to language if there are languages without it, even just one language.
First an aside: I tend to agree that it would indeed be curious if we found a language with a non-recursive G given that virtually all of the Gs that have been studied are recursive. Thus finding one that is not would be odd for the same reason that finding a single counter example to any generalization is always curious (and which is why I tend not to believe DE’s claims and tend to find the critique by Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues compelling). But, and this is the main take home message, whether curious or not, it is at right angles to Chomsky’s claim concerning FL for the reasons outlined above. The capacity to acquire recursive Gs is not falsified by the acquisition of a non-recursive one. Thus, logically speaking, the observation that Piraha does not have embedded clauses (i.e. does not the display one of the standard diagnostics of a recursive G) does not imply that Piraha speakers do not have recursive FLs. Thus, DE’s claims are completely irrelevant to Chomsky’s even if correct. That point has been made repeatedly and, sadly, it has still not sunk in. I doubt that for some it ever will.
Ok, let’s now consider some other questions. Here’s one: is this linguistic meta-capacity permanent or evanescent? In other words, one can imagine that FL has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs but that once it has acquired a non-recursive G it can no longer acquire a recursive one. DE’s article suggests that this is so for Piraha speakers (p. 7). Again, I have no idea if this is indeed the case (if true it constitute evidence for a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) but this claim even if correct is at right angles to Chomsky’s claim about FL. Species specific dedicated capacities need not remain intact after use. It could be true that FL is only available for first language acquisition and this would mean that second languages are acquired in different ways (maybe by piggy backing on the first G acquired). However so far as I know, neither Chomsky nor GG has ever committed hostages to this issue. Again, I am personally skeptical that having a Piraha G precludes you from the recursive parts of a Portuguese G, but I have nothing but prejudicial hunches to sustain the skepticism. At any rate, it doesn’t bear on Chomsky’s thesis concerning FL. The upshot: DE’s remarks once again are at right angles to Chomsky’s claims so interesting as the possibility it raises might be for interesting issues relating to second language acquisition, it is not relevant to Chomsky’s claims about the recursive nature of FL.
A third question: is the meta-capacity culturally relative? DE’s piece suggests that it is because the actual acquisition of recursive Gs might be subject to cultural influences. The point seems to be that if culture influences whether an acquired G is recursive or not implies that the meta-capacity is recursive or not as well. But this does not follow. Let me explain.
All agree that the details of an actual G are influenced by all sorts of factors, including culture. This must be so and has been insisted upon since the earliest days of GG. After all, the G one acquires is a function of FL and the PLD used to construct that G. But the PLD is itself a function of what is actually gets and there is no doubt that what utterances are performed is influenced by the culture of the utterers. So, that culture has an effect on the shape of specific Gs is (or should be) uncontroversial. However, none of this implies that the meta-capacity to build recursive Gs is itself culturally dependent, nor does DE’s piece explain how it could be. In fact, it has always been unclear how external factors could affect this meta-capacity. You either have a recursive meta-capacity or you don’t. As Dawkins put it (see here for discussion and references):
… Just as you can’t have half a segment, there are no intermediates between a recursive and a non-recursive subroutine. Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick… (383)
Given this “all or nothing” quality, what would it mean to say that the capacity (i.e. the innately provided “computer language” of FL) was dependent on “culture.”? Of course, if what you mean is that the exercise of the capacity is culture dependent and what you mean by this is that it depends on the nature of the PLD (and other factors) that might themselves be influenced by “culture” then duh! But, if this is what DE’s piece intends, then once again it fails to make contact with Chomsky’s claim concerning the recursive nature of FL. The capacity is what it is though of course the exercise of the capacity to produce a G will be influenced by all sorts of factors, some of which we can call “culture.”
Two more points and we are done.
First, there is a source for the confusion in DE’s papers (and it is the same one I have pointed to before). DE’s discussion treats all universals as if Greenbergian. Here’s a quote from the current piece that shows this (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to uncover the Greenbergian premise):
The real lesson is that if recursion is the narrow faculty of language, but doesn’t actually have to be manifested in a given language, then likely more languages than Piraha…could lack recursion. And by this reasoning we derive the astonishing claim that. Although, recursion would be the characteristic that makes human language possible, it need not actually be found in any given language. (8)
Note the premise: unless every G is recursive then recursion cannot be “that which makes human languages possible.” But this only makes sense if you understand things as Greenberg does. If you understand the claim as being about the capacity to acquire recursive Gs then none of this follows.
Nor are we led to absurdity. Let me froth here. Of course, nobody would think that we had a capacity for constructing recursive Gs unless we had reason to think that some Gs were so. But we have endless evidence that this is the case. So, given that there is at least one such G (indeed endlessly many), humans clearly must have the capacity to construct such Gs. So, though we might have had such a capacity and never exercised it (this is logically possible), we are not really in that part of the counterfactual space. All we need to get the argument going for a recursive meta-capacity is mastery of at least one recursive G and there is no dispute that there exists such a G and that humans have acquired it. Given this, the only coherent reason for thinking a counterexample (like Piraha) could be a problem is if one understood the claim to universality as implying that a universal property of FL (i.e. a feature of FL) must manifest itself in every G. And this is to understand ‘universal’ a la Greenberg and and not as Chomsky does. Thus we are back to original sin in DE’s oeuvre; the insistence on a Greenberg conception of universal.
Second, the piece makes another point. It suggests that DE’s dispute with Chomsky is actually over whether recursion is part of FL or part of cognition more generally. Here’s the quote (10):
…the question is not whether humans can think recursively. The question is whether this ability is linked specifically to language or instead to human cognitive accomplishments more generally…
If I understand this correctly, it is agreed that recursion is an innate part of human mental machinery. What’s at issue is whether there is anything linguistically proprietary about it. Thus, Chomsky could be right to think that human linguistic capacity manifests recursion but that this is not a specifically linguistic fact about us as we manifest recursion in our mental life quite generally.
Maybe. But frankly it is hard to see how DE’s writings bear on these very recondite issues. Here’s what I mean: Human Gs are not merely recursive but exhibit a particular kind of recursion. Work in GG over the last 60 years has been in service of trying to specify what kind of recursive Gs humans entertain. Now, the claim here is that we find the kind of structure we find in human Gs in cognition more generally. This is empirically possible. Show me! Show me that other kinds of cognition have the same structures as those GGers have found occur in Gs. Nothing in DE’s arguments about Piraha have any obvious bearing on this claim for there is no demonstration that other parts of cognition have anything like the recursive structure we find in human Gs.
But let’s say that we establish such a parallelism. There is still more to do. Here is a second question: is FL recursive because our mental life in general is or is our mental life in general recursive because we have FL. This is the old species specificity question all over again. Chomsky’s claim is that if there is anything species special about human linguistic facility it rests in the kind of recursion we find in language. To rebut this species specificity requires showing that this kind of recursion is not the exclusive preserve of linguistically capable beings. But, once again, nothing in DE’s work addresses this question. No evidence is presented trying to establish the parallel between the kind of recursion we find in human Gs and any animal cognitive structures.
Suffice it to say that the kind of recursion we find in language is not cognitively ubiquitous (so far as we can tell) and that if it occurs in other parts of cognition it does not appear to be rampant in non-human animal cognition. And, for me at least, that is linguistically specific enough. Moreover, and this is the important point as regards DE’s claims, it is quite unclear how anything about Piraha will bear on this question. Whether or not Piraha has a recursive G will tell us nothing about whether other animals have recursive minds like ours.
Conclusion? The same as before. There is no there there. We find arguments based on equivocation and assertions without support. The whole discussion is irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims about the recursive structure of FL and whether that is the sole UGish feature of FL.
That’s it. As you can see, I got carried away. I didn’t mean to write so much. Sorry. Last time? Let’s all hope so.
 Here you can whistle some appropriate Minimalist tune if you would like. I personally think that there is something linguistically specific about FL given that we are the only animals that appear to manifest anything like the recursive structures we find in language. But, this is an empirical question. See here for discussion.
 Chomsky’s minimalist conjecture is that this is the sole linguistically special capacity required.
 Indeed such odd counterexamples place a very strong burden of proof on the individual arguing for it. Sometimes this burden of proof can be met. But singular counterexamples that float in a sea of regularity are indeed curious and worthy of considerable skepticism. However, that’s not my point here. It is a different one: the Piraha facts whatever they turn out to be are irrelevant to the claim the FL has the capacity to acquire recursive Gs. As this is what Chomsky has been proposing. Thus, the facts regarding Piraha whatever they turn out to be are logically irrelevant to Chomsky’s proposal.
 This seems to be the way that Sakel conceives of the process (see here). Sakel is the person the DE piece cites as rebutting the idea that Piraha speakers with Portuguese as a second language behave. That speakers build their second G on the scaffolding provided by a first G is quite plausible a priori (though whether it is true is another matter entirely). And if this is so, then features of one’s first G should have significant impact on properties of one’s second G. Sakel, btw, is far less categorical in her views than what DE’s piece suggests. Last point: a nice “experiment” if this interests you is to see what happens if a speaker is acquiring Portuguese and Piraha simultaneously; both as first Gs. What should we expect? I dunno, but my hunch is that both would be acquired swimmingly.
 So, for example, dialects of English differ wrt the acceptability of Topicalization. My community used it freely and I find them great. My students at UMD were not that comfortable with this kind of displacement. I am willing to bet that Topicalization’s alias (i.e. Yiddish Movement) betrays a certain cultural influence.
 Again, see note 4 and Sakel’s useful discussion of the complexity of Portuguese input to the Piraha second language acquirer.
 BTW, so far as I can tell, invoking “culture” is nothing but a rhetorical flourish most of the time. It usually means nothing more than “not biology.” However, how culture affects matters and which bits do what is often (always?) left unsettled. It often seems to me that the word is brandished a bit like garlic against vampires, mainly there to ward off evil biological spirits.
 On this view, DE agrees that there is FLB but no FLN, i.e. a UGish part of FL.
 In Minimalist terms, is recursion a UGish part of FL or is there no UG at all in FL.
 There is also some truly silly stuff in which DE speculates as to why the push back against his views has been so vigorous. Curiously, DE does not countenance the possibility that it is because his arguments though severely wanting have been very widely covered. There is some dumb stuff on Chomsky’s politics, Wolfe junk, and general BS about how to do science. This is garbage and not worth your time, except for psycho-sociological speculation.