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Origins of language

This week’s New Scientist has an intriguing item about a tribe in the Amazon whose language, spoken by only 200 people, lacks words for numerals and colours and does not allow its speakers to talk about abstract concepts such as gods or spirits. This is taken to be a challenge to Noam Chomsky’s idea of innate grammar.

I don’t know if these claims will be born out by further research, but if the difficulties the language allegedly poses for Chomsky’s theory are valid I’m interested, because I’ve been convinced for some time that Terrence Deacon’s alternative idea, that language and the brain have co-evolved together, is nearer the mark. (See my of Deacon’s book for more details.)

The discovery of this language, incidentally, highlights the tragedy of the ongoing loss of minority languages throughout the world, a loss that parallels that of the extinction of species (and for much the same reasons).

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