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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

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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

  • Biodiversity

  • Language Diversity

  • The case of Pirahã

  • Conclusions


I. 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


Biodiversity and Pharmacology


II. Language Diversity: Sound and Sense


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

  • “Eskimo has over 100 words for snow.”

  • “Primitive” languages


Sound


Sound


Sound


Sound


Sound


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: Counting


Counting


Sense: Activity (Fillmore 1968)

He ran away.

Agent

Agent Object

She hit him.

He felt sick.

Object


O

Activity

A

A

he

him

O

English


Activity

A

A

O

O

Chinook


Activity

A

O

A

O

Dakota

(c.f. Spanish Me gusta,

English Methinks)


Activity

A

A

O

O

Takelma


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.


III. The Case of Pirahã


South American Languages


South American Languages


300 languages: 20 families, 12 isolates


Pirahã


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


Pirahã Language & Culture (Everett 1979 … 2005)


Sound System

But rich “suprasegmental” inventory (sung speech: )


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”


IV. Conclusions


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

  • 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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