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Preserving Language Diversity: Lessons from Amazonia. Simon D. Levy Computer Science Department Washington & Lee University Lexington, VA 24450 http://www.cs.wlu.edu/~levy. First W&L/Petrobras Conference on the Environment, Economy, and Sustainable Development 22 June 2007. Outline.

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Preserving language diversity lessons from amazonia

Preserving Language Diversity: Lessons from Amazonia

Simon D. Levy

Computer Science Department

Washington & Lee University

Lexington, VA 24450

http://www.cs.wlu.edu/~levy

First W&L/Petrobras Conference on the Environment, Economy, and Sustainable Development

22 June 2007


Outline
Outline

  • Biodiversity

  • Language Diversity

  • The case of Pirahã

  • Conclusions



Rainforest biodiversity
Rainforest Biodiversity

  • Greatest plant biodiversity is in rainforests: 170,000 of the world's 250,000 known plant species.

  • “We are trying to do biology knowing perhaps only a tenth, or one hundredth, of our species”

    – Terry Gosliner, National Geographic




Language a window on the mind
Language: A Window on the Mind

  • Reflects / affects how we think about the world

  • Amazing variety of ways of saying the “same thing”

  • Counter-intuitive constraints

    not derivable (?) from more general principles


Fallacies pitfalls
Fallacies & Pitfalls

  • “Eskimo has over 100 words for snow.”

  • “Primitive” languages







Sense gender
Sense: Gender

  • English:

    (1) Masculine

    (2) Feminine

  • Dyirbal (Dixon 1979):

    (1) Animate objects, men

    (2) Women, water, fire, violence

    (3) Edible fruit and vegetables

    (4) Miscellaneous




Sense activity fillmore 1968
Sense: Activity (Fillmore 1968)

He ran away.

Agent

Agent Object

She hit him.

He felt sick.

Object


Activity

O

Activity

A

A

he

him

O

English


Activity1
Activity

A

A

O

O

Chinook


Activity2
Activity

A

O

A

O

Dakota

(c.f. Spanish Me gusta,

English Methinks)


Activity3
Activity

A

A

O

O

Takelma


So what is universal human vs animal language
So What Is Universal?(Human vs. Animal Language)

  • Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch, (2002): Recursion- the ability to combine words without limit:

    I enjoyed the Piatam conference.

    I told Jim that I enjoyed the Piatam conference.

    Laurence knew that I told Jim that I enjoyed the Piatam conference.

    etc.

  • I.e., every human language is infinite.







The pirah people
The Pirahã People

  • Remnant of Mura tribe (late 1700’s)

  • 150-200 hunter-gatherers living along the Maici River

  • Trade and reproduce

  • w/outsiders, but no

    interest in outsider

    language or culture



Sound system
Sound System

But rich “suprasegmental” inventory (sung speech: )


Lexicon grammar
Lexicon & Grammar

  • No color terms

  • No counting words

  • No recursion:

    I enjoyed the Piatam conference. I told Jim. Laurence knew it.

  • Huge controversy

    • A finite human language?

    • Culture influencing (determining?) language: “Immediacy of Experience Principle”



Threats to glossodiversity
Threats to Glossodiversity

  • “Of the more than 6,000 languages currently being spoken, fewer than half are likely to survive the [21st] century” – Douglas Whalen, Endangered Language Fund

  • Appears to correlate with biodiversity (Manne 2003)

  • The languages most likely to give us new insights are the ones that are most endangered.


Each language in this sense, while sharing cognitive and communicative principles in common with all other languages spoken by Homo sapiens, is unique. This is why it is such a tragedy when a language dies — we don't just lose a grammar. We lose an entire way of thinking and talking about the world; we lose a set of solutions to the problems that beset us all as humans.

- D. L. Everett


Links
Links communicative principles in common with all other languages spoken by Homo sapiens, is unique. This is why it is such a tragedy when a language dies — we don't just lose a grammar. We lose an entire way of thinking and talking about the world; we lose a set of solutions to the problems that beset us all as humans.

  • RECURSION AND HUMAN THOUGHT: WHY THE PIRAHÃ DON'T HAVE NUMBERS: A Talk With Daniel L. Everett

    http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge213.html#everett

  • Endangered Language Fund: http://www.endangeredlanguagefund.org


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