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Monday, February 8, 2016 | |

Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense.

The essence of human language is, according to Chomsky, the ability of finite brains to produce what he considers to be infinite grammars. By this he means not only that there is no upper limit on what we can say, but that there is no upper limit on the number of sentences our language has, there's no upper limit on the size of any particular sentence. Chomsky has claimed that the fundamental tool that underlies all of this creativity of human language is recursion: the ability for one phrase to reoccur inside another phrase of the same type. If I say "John's brother's house", I have a noun, "house", which occurs in a noun phrase, "brother's house", and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, "John's brother's house". This makes a lot of sense, and it's an interesting property of human language.
But what if a language didn't show recursion? What would be the significance of that? First of all, it would mean that the language is not infinite—it would be a finite language, there could only be limited number of sentences in that language. It would also mean that you could specify the upper size of a particular sentence in that language. That sounds bizarre, until we think of something like chess, which has also got a finite number of moves, but chess is an enormously productive game, it can be played and has been played for centuries, and many of these moves are novel, and the fact that it's finite really doesn't tell us much about its richness, or its importance.
If there were a finite language, because of the lack of recursion, that wouldn't mean that it wasn't spoken by normal humans, nor would it mean that it wasn't a very rich source of communication. But if you lived in an environment in which culture restricted the topics that you talked about, and not only just your general environmental limitations on the topics you talked about, but if there were a value in the culture that said, don't talk about topics that go beyond, say, immediate experience—in other words, don't talk about anything that you haven't seen or that hasn't been told to you by an eyewitness—this would severely limit what you could talk about. If that's the case, then that language might be finite, but it wouldn't be a poor language; it could be a very rich language. The fact that it's finite doesn't mean it's not a very rich language. And if that's the case, then you would look for evidence that this language lacked recursion.

So in the case of Pirahã,