What is the strangest language in the world? Many linguists believe that all languages share certain universal rules and features. They believe that humans have innate or natural grammar that we are born with. However, there is a language from South America which is so strange and peculiar that it challenges this theory! Let’s discuss it in this episode of Thinking in English!
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Linguist (n) – someone who studies the structure and development of language
He is a well known linguist and expert on South American languages
Universal (adj) – existing everywhere or involving everyone
Love and relationships will always be a topic of universal interest
blank canvas (n) – someone, or something, without a fixed character and that can develop in different ways
A newborn baby is a blank canvas who can learn any language
Innate (adj) – an innate quality or ability is one that you were born with, not one you have learned
James has innate goodness
Grammatical (adj) – obeying the rules of grammar
It’s not grammatical to say ‘Me and my friends went to the cinema’
Isolate (n) – a person or thing that has been or become isolated
Social isolates often become careless of their own welfare
Finite (adj) – having a limit or end
The funds available for the health service are finite and we cannot afford to waste money
Abstract (adj) – existing as an idea, feeling, or quality, not as a material object
Truth and beauty are abstract concepts
Noam Chomsky is one of the most famous linguists, philosophers, historians, social critics and political activists of the 20th century. In fact, he is sometimes known as “the father of modern linguistics” and hundreds of thousands of university students around the world have probably read his books and used his theories. I was, and still am, one of those students! Chomsky has written about many different topics ranging from linguistics to politics to war and media. Today, however, I want to briefly introduce one of his most important theories: the theory of Universal Grammar.
The basic idea behind the theory of Universal Grammar is that there are certain rules that all humans are born already possessing. We don’t learn these rules from our experience with the natural world; we don’t learn these rules from seeing, speaking, listening, touching, smelling etc. For a long time, philosophers and psychologists thought of young children’s minds as being a kind of blank slate or an empty piece of paper. They believed that our grammar and language were only learnt by listening to it being spoken. However, this is no longer the major theory! Instead, the common belief is that the human brain is built to learn grammatical languages, even without hearing it as a baby.
Experiments done on new-born babies have shown that although they do not understand or comprehend words said to them, they do possess the ability to understand the sounds of the human voice and even tell the difference between certain sounds. Apparently, a baby can tell the difference between the words ‘mom’ and ‘mop,’ for instance, without actually knowing what the two words mean. These innate rules make it easier and faster for children to learn to speak. In other words, your environment determines which language you learn, but all children are born with the tools to learn language.
This suggests that every language in the world has some common, or universal, features. The natural ability doesn’t include vocabulary of a particular language which means words and meaning still need to be learned. In addition, there are many other aspects of language that must be learned and vary between different languages – like word order and pronunciation. However, like I said earlier, Chomsky and others who believe in Universal Grammar believe that all languages share some kind of basic rules from which different languages are built. Perhaps, this is why it is possible to learn and become fluent in languages completely unrelated to your own.
One such apparent universal feature is what is known as ‘recursion.’ Recursion in language suggests that there is no limit to the length of grammatical sentences. Let me give you some examples. If we start with a simple sentence like ‘The man walked down the street’ we can keep adding information to this sentence and keep the grammar correct. ‘The man briskly walked down the long and winding street.’ ‘In the middle of the night, the man briskly walked down the long and winding street.’ ‘In the middle of the night, the tall man with a big head briskly walked down the long and winding street.’ We are adding more information as we say these sentences, and there is no limit to the amount of information we can add. Let me give you a better example. ‘Tom likes sport’; ‘Jack said Tom likes sport’; ‘Tom heard that Jack said Tom likes sport’; ‘Jack was told that Tom heard that Jack said Tom likes sport.’ This can continue forever. Chomsky believes that recursion is one of the universal parts of our language.
Ok… you are probably thinking right now… what does any of this have to do with the title of this podcast? What does this have to do with the strangest language in the world? Well, every language in the world, from the forests of Papua New Guinea to the clicking languages of Africa and the isolated language of the arctic, has recursion. Apart from one. Now this is not completely accepted by researchers and experts, but there may be one language in the world without recursion. And if this is the case, it casts doubt of the theory of Universal grammar.
Deep in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, an indigenous tribe called the Piraha speak a language isolate that has the potential to shock the linguistic world. According to Daniel Everett, a linguist who is best known for his studies of the language of the Pirahã people, the Piraha language demonstrates that language is not innate but is developed by humans. The Piraha language is not related to any other language currently spoken on our planet, and while all languages have unique features, Piraha has so many more unique features than usual.
For example, in the Piraha language there are no numbers. While some other languages don’t really use numbers, the Piraha language doesn’t allow for counting. They have no words for colours. They cannot talk about the distant future or the distant past. They have no theories about how the world was created, or what happens after a person dies. They have no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few,” which many linguists believe are universal. The language has only 8 consonants and three vowels which means it has one of the simplest sound systems currently known. However, the tones, stresses, and word lengths are so complicated and complex that Piraha speakers can hum, sing, or whistle their conversations without saying words. And, importantly, the Piraha language does not include recursion.
Everett gives the example of this sentence “Another day an old man slowly butchered a couple of big tapirs, by the side of the water.” While in English we could add a word like brown to this sentence, but in Piraha adding anything else to this sentence makes it ungrammatical. It does not make sense anymore. Phrases in the language can only have a single modifying word (like an adjective), or occasionally a second modifier at the end of the sentence. This means that Pirahã is finite and cannot be recursive. Another example I found comes from this New Yorker article. The reporter wanted to say “I saw the dog that was down by the river get bitten by a snake,” in Piraha language. But that is not possible. They would have to say, ‘I saw the dog. The dog was at the beach. A snake bit the dog.’ The Piraha only accept observable things as real, and when they talk they only state their thoughts in a direct way.
The Piraha live their lives exclusively in the present and the real world. Their language does not allow for true abstract thought. They can only talk about things that exist in the real world. Numbers, colours, the past and future are abstract thoughts; there is no such thing as the number one in nature. So instead of having words like red, blue, and green, they will use relative terms like this looks like blood, this looks like the sky, or this looks like leaves. Everett began his study of Piraha language as a Christian Missionary with the aim of translating the bible into every language in the world. However, he eventually realized that they could not learn about Christianity as it required abstract thought. They never caught more fish or picked more berries than necessary because they do not plan for the future as the future does not exist yet.
Certainly, Everett’s theories about the Piraha language are not accepted by everyone. Chomsky, as well as many of his followers, argue that Universal Grammar is still important and Piraha language is not a strong counter example. But the Piraha language is unique and challenges many of the ideas that we have about language!
What is the strangest language in the world? Well, the word ‘strange’ is relative and cultural. It depends what we mean by strange. However, I think many people would see the Piraha language as strange. It has no numbers and doesn’t allow for counting, can be sung or whistle without using words, and only uses the real observable world! It also challenges Chomsky’s theory that our grammar is universal. What do you think? Are humans born with a natural grammar already built into our brains? Or do we learn completely from listening to the language?