Piraha Exceptionality: a Reassessment
Andrew Ira Nevins, David Pesetsky, Cilene Rodrigues
June 2009

Everett (2005) has claimed that the grammar of Pirahã is exceptional in displaying "inexplicable gaps", that these gaps follow from an alleged cultural principle restricting communication to "immediate experience", and that this principle has "severe" consequences for work on Universal Grammar. We argue against each of these claims. Relying on the available documentation and descriptions of the language (especially the rich material in Everett (1986; 1987b)), we argue that many of the exceptional grammatical "gaps" supposedly characteristic of Pirahã are misanalyzed by Everett (2005) and are neither gaps nor exceptional among the world's languages. We find no evidence, for example, that Pirahã lacks embedded clauses, and in fact find strong syntactic and semantic evidence in favor of their existence in Pirahã. Likewise, we find no evidence that Pirahã lacks quantifiers, as claimed by Everett (2005). Furthermore, most of the actual properties of the Pirahã constructions discussed by Everett (for example, the ban on prenominal possessor recursion and the behavior of wh-constructions) are familiar from languages whose speakers lack the cultural restrictions attributed to the Pirahã. Finally, following mostly Gonçalves (1993; 2000; 2001), we also question some of the empirical claims about Pirahã culture advanced by Everett in primary support of the "immediate experience" restriction. We are left with no evidence of a causal relation between culture and grammatical structure. Pirahã grammar contributes to ongoing research into the nature of Universal Grammar, but presents no unusual challenge, much less a "severe" one.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/000411
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: The second version available on this website (June 2009) corresponds to the significantly revised final version, published in Language 85.2, 355-404 (June 2009).
Everett's response appeared in the same issue, and our appeared in the next issue (Language 85.3, 671-681; September 2009). (All these published versions are downloadable at the links given.)
keywords: piraha, pirahã, recursion, embedding, universal grammar, quantifiers, everett, myths, culture, pronouns, numerals, syntax
previous versions: v1 [March 2007]
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