The lack of the linguistic device “recursion” in the Pirahã language might be more subtle than investigator Dan Everett suspects. I’ve heard examples of the sentence given as recursion—”When I finish eating, I want to speak to you”—rendered as a run-on sentence by speakers new to English and by lifelong speakers as well: “I finish eating I speak to you.” The “when,” which determines the timing of the second part of the run-on, is implied. Perhaps something similar occurs in Pirahã.

William Britton
North Port, Fla.

Pirahã seem to be using words and other noises as signs rather than symbols. Symbols routinely refer to absent abstractions, whereas signs merely direct attention to potential objects of experience. We shouldn’t be surprised that a grammar of signs like those of the Pirahã might differ from a grammar of symbols.

Richard Lind
Tulsa, Okla.

From the Nature Index

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