Peter Jennings, Noam Chomsky, and the Piraha

Peter Jennings, ABC TV’s recently departed news anchor, said (roughly), “I have never seen an issue on which everyone agreed. When I see a coin, I have to turn it over to see the other side.”

Dan Everett, a linguistics expert, spent 30 years with the Amazonian Pirahã people. The April 16, 2007 New Yorker story describes his gradual disenchantment with Noam Chomsky, the pied piper of linguistics.

Grossly simplified, Chomsky says the structure of language is innate in humans. He cites recursive speech, e.g. rather than saying “that man is tall,” and, “that man is walking,” we say “that tall man is walking.” Recursion is uniquely human, says Chomsky.

The Pirahã do not use recursive speech, says Everett. Nor do they refer to the past, nor count above about three. Their language lacks a perfect tense. Everett says they are remarkable for the degree to which they simply live in the present, accepting as real only that which they observe.

Everett says the Pirahã disprove Chomsky’s theory. Chomskyites beg to differ. Character assassination (disguised as academics) ensues.

(I will get back to Jennings.)

Other researchers visit the tribe to challenge Everett by proving recursion in the Pirahã. The data don’t seem to cooperate. That doesn’t deter the theorists—the data must be wrong.

Two other theorists accuse Everett of insulting the tribe by essentially calling them subhuman—stupid. After all, the logic goes, if they aren’t recursive—as Chomsky insists they must be, in order to be human—then they must be stupid. QED.

Everett insists they’re highly intelligent, one of the most savvy tribes in the region.

(See where Jennings is coming up?)

The author comically tries to explain insect repellent to a Pirahã; he mimics a buzzing fly landing on his arm, then slapping it. Everett translated. What? He hit himself? A plane lands on his arm?

Everett explains, and the main looks at the author with pitying contempt. “You told him bugs bothered you,” explained Everett. “But bugs are part of life. How could you be bothered by them?”

The Chomskyite explanation of people who don’t fit their theory is—they must be less than people. The Parahã, to be clear, are exactly the same: they show no interest whatsoever in the outside world, considering themselves superior. Those insect repellent fools? They must be less than people.

I once discussed a point with an Arican American woman co-worker. “You know,” I said, “it’s like that Rolling Stones song.”

“I don’t think I know it,” she replied.

“Sure you do,” I said, “it was a Top-40 song.”

She looked at me askance; “and just whose Top-40 would that happen to be?” she asked me.

It had never dawned on me that my pop-music experience wasn’t universal.

We praise a lot of traits in people: loyalty, fearlessness, conviction, compassion, integrity. In business, we praise intellectual rigor (though ironically our generally accepted business model for human motivation often resembles Skinner’s for rats). We value courage and entrepreneurial instincts, as well as leadership ability (whatever that means).

I’d like to give some props to humility. Let’s bow down to the fact that basically we don’t know diddly—particularly when we think we do. Let’s celebrate humility, which leads to honesty, and then perhaps to curiosity. Humility is the starting point that makes all things possible. Certainly that’s true for trust.

When you meet a man with the courage of his convictions, watch out.

Or, as Peter Jennings would have more generously put it, turn the coin over to look at the other side.

0 replies
  1. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    I studied linguistics a bit in university.  Chomsky is one of those figures who, whether or not his theories turn out to be correct, is absolutely seminal.  You can no more understand the discipline of linguistics without understanding Chomsky’s theories than you can understand the history of economics without understanding Keynes;  or psychology without understanding Freud (and for the record I loathe Freudianism).  I will also note that Chomsky gave so much more to linguistics than a cognitive theory, although again, you can’t understand cognitive science, philosophy of the mind, or even large chunks of psychology without going back to Chomsky (he destroyed the  more rigid variety of behaviouralism, for example, just buried Skinner.)

    As for Chomskyites, I am reminded of Marx.

    Marx: "I am not a Marxist".

    Few great intellectuals or philosophers are pleased or well served by their followers.  I doubt Chirst or Muhammed would have much time for many of those who claim to act in their name either.

  2. Michael
    Michael says:

    Charles — your story about the Top-40 song reminds me of an experience I once had, also with an African American woman co-worker (perhaps there is a broader lesson here…having to do with white males and African American woman…but I digress.)

    We worked for a firm that did a lot of highly classified work for the government.  Some of it was so "hush-hush" that it was referred to as… well, suffice to say that I once said to her "you know, it’s a black program."  The look on her face was priceless, as she tried to decide whether to slap me or sue me.  Think: "whachu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?"


  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Ian, thanks for the excellent contexting on Chomsky. 

    Re Michael’s example, just to be clear, I think of Gary Coleman’s comic signature line as being defiantly ignorant–confused, but never in doubt.  In the case of my friend, she notonly  knew exactly what she was talking about, she also knew that I didn’t.

  4. Brett Rogers
    Brett Rogers says:

    This reminds me of the "tappers and listeners" story told in Made To Stick. From Harvey Stagner’s web site (

    They told the story of Elizabeth Newton, who in 1990 earned her Ph. D. with an experiment involving “tappers” and “listeners”. In this experiment the “tappers” received a list of well-known songs that they had to tap out on a table to the “listeners”. The “listener” had to guess the song being “tapped.” Out of 120 songs only 2.5% were guessed correctly. What made this noteworthy was the fact that the “tappers” were also required to guess how often the “listeners” would guess a song correctly. The “tappers” guessed 50% when the reality was 2.5%. Why such a huge margin of error? The “tappers” had what the Heaths referred to as the “Curse of Knowledge.” When they “tapped” a tune it was impossible for them to tap it without hearing it in their head. Their prior knowledge of the song title made it impossible for them to imagine the “listener” having no such knowledge.

    Your plea for humility is a great answer to this.

  5. Mark Williams
    Mark Williams says:

    I could not agree with Charlie more, as we often say and this doesn’t sound very grammatically correct but we folks in the US do have a "hay day" or is it "hey day" with words and sayings.

    I was and am a great admirer of Peter Jennings and I do believe what he said about turning the other side of the coin.  When we do turn over we do have a chance to really get to know the other.

    As far as watching out when you come up against a man and/or a woman with convictions…I wonder what kind of discussion we might have if we put Jerry Falwell in that category. His recent death brought back much for me about his convictions and how far off base he and his Moral Majority were/are when it comes to an inclusiveness of humility, found in all human beings. Strange that the university he founded is named: Liberty University. Liberty from whom, with whom and for whom I might ask. If we turn over Falwell’s coin, what might we find ?


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