News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: What Would A Human Sound Like If It Could Speak Bird? Piraha

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What Would A Human Sound Like If It Could Speak Bird? Piraha

I wish some people would actually read Wittgenstein instead of just citing him as the greatest philosopher of the 20th cent. Chomsky, though I agree with his politics, is dead in the water when it comes to understanding language.

Anyway this is interesting. I wish they'd included a sound file.

The New Yorker writes:

Fitch’s experiments were based on the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, a system for classifying types of grammar, ranked in ascending order of complexity. To test the Pirahã’s ability to learn one of the simplest types of grammar, Fitch had written a program in which grammatically correct constructions were represented by a male voice uttering one nonsense syllable (mi or doh or ga, for instance), followed by a female voice uttering a different nonsense syllable (lee or ta or gee). Correct constructions would cause an animated monkey head at the bottom of the computer screen to float to a corner at the top of the screen after briefly disappearing; incorrect constructions (anytime one male syllable was followed by another male syllable or more than one female syllable) would make the monkey head float to the opposite corner. Fitch set up a small digital movie camera behind the laptop to film the Pirahã’s eye movements. In the few seconds’ delay before the monkey head floated to either corner of the screen, Fitch hoped that he would be able to determine, from the direction of the subjects’ unconscious glances, if they were learning the grammar. The experiment, using different stimuli, had been conducted with undergraduates and monkeys, all of whom passed the test. Fitch told me that he had little doubt that the Pirahã would pass. “My expectation coming in here is that they’re going to act just like my Harvard undergrads,” he said. “They’re going to do exactly what every other human has done and they’re going to get this basic pattern. The Pirahã are humans—humans can do this.”
LIke I said, read Wittgenstein.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hi, i found your blog by doing a google search for Wittgenstein and piraha. I think your comment here was very interesting because it mirrored my thoughts very closely while reading that article in the New Yorker. Most of the "primitive language games" of Philosophical Investigations make it abundantly clear that language is possible without recursion. Where is the recursion in "d slab there?"
-Jason Quackenbush