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Pirahã: a language without complexity? Lecture by Dr Jeanette Sakel

12 June 2013

Using her fieldwork on Pirahã as a basis, Dr Sakel introduced a topic that is at the forefront of discussions surrounding the existence of a Universal Grammar.

Using her fieldwork on Pirahã as a basis, Dr Sakel introduced a topic that is at the forefront of discussions surrounding the existence of a Universal Grammar. Having become interested in her colleague Professor Daniel Everett’s claim that this language did not conform to Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar she accompanied him to spend time amongst this community in order to establish whether the Pirahã language lacks the one element stated to be universal to all languages: complexity. 

Dr Sakel began by introducing a lecture theatre full of intrigued language students and lecturers to the fascinating community, lifestyle and culture of the Pirahã and then went on the explain the details of the debate which has stemmed from Everett’s claim. The audience were given an insight into a language which despite being very complex, in linguistic terms seems to lack complexity due to the absence of recursion.

In the discussion that followed it became very clear that this interesting and contentious issue continually highlights new questions to be answered and will proved linguists with food for thought for a long time to come!

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