[b-hebrew] Colors and Language

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Wed Aug 22 14:48:19 EDT 2007

Dear James:

On 8/21/07, JAMES CHRISTIAN READ <JCR128 at student.anglia.ac.uk> wrote:
> Hi Pete,
> yes! Recursion is Chomsky's latest big thing which he
> loves to harp on about.

I am no fan of Chomsky, but my main point of contact with him has been
outside of linguistics, where he has at times made a fool of himself.

But then I tend to be suspicious of any study that becomes overly
theoretical, and I wonder if Chomsky has become overly theoretical. I
prefer field studies over theoretical constructs.

> ... For me there is no great surprise
> to discover a language that does not exhibit recursion
> in this way.

Is it certain that the language does not exhibit recursion, or is it
that recursion is indicated by clues that Everette has missed? After
all, in their appreciation of Hollywood movies, the people seem to
understand the concept of recursion. Further, Everette implied that
his ex, Keren, might have a better grasp of the language than he,
meaning that if she were a publishing theoretical linguist, she might
be able to contradict some of his claims because she caught clues that
he missed?

> ...
> What would make the Piraha cognitively inferior would
> be the inability to distinguish colour....
But as you recognize, they do distinguish color, and they have
linguistic and/or contextual clues to tell the listener that when they
mention a "fiery bowl" that it is a reference to a red colored bowl
and not to a bowl that is on fire.

> ...
> Anyway, in summary, the points being made are:
> 1) They make cognitive colour distinctions just like
> everyone else.
> 2) They have the ability to understand descriptions
> with colour terms (no matter how rudimentary).
> 3) They have the ability to produce descriptions with
> colour terms.
> In short, they are deficit in no way other than the
> lack of a standardised system which their culture proves
> to be unnecessary to their survival. Colour can still
> therefore be considered a language universal even if
> recursion can't. Their language is of great interest to
> me because while apparently deficit in a number of areas
> it preserves the most basic of cognitive abilites
> 1) shape discrimination
> 2) colour discrimination
> 3) bigger/smaller discrimination
> >From a cognitive scientist perspective. It's a pearl of
> a language.
> James Christian Read
> BSc Computer Science (thesis: concept driven machine translation using the Aleppo codex)
> http://www.lamie.org/hebrew
One thing I missed in the report about the Piraha: what are the
stories they tell in the evenings around the fire? Or are they just
silent? Did Everette ever sit in among such groups, or was he never
allowed to listen in because he is a foreigner? The report is silent
on this aspect.

The stories that the brothers Grimm collected were their raw material
for their linguistic studies (and even today, are published still in
their dialectal forms), so in missing those stories, is Everette
missing out on a lot of linguistic and social/contextual clues?

Or maybe Everette did study these stories, and the report merely
failed to mention that.

I don't think Everette's study is done. Is he merely looking at
linguistic structure, where it is context that may provide the
recursion? The same with colors?

How does this apply to Hebrew? As for me, one thing my questions
reveal is my repeated demand for context in understanding and
evaluating words, as the context can often give clues not found in the
structure of the language per se, and we need to understand that
context in order to understand properly what a passage says.

Karl W. Randolph.

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