Prosody-pragmatics rich language- the case of Piraha~?

Noel Rude nrude at
Thu May 25 16:10:59 UTC 2006

But of course the study of pidgins and creoles comes in here--left to 
themselves children will create a more isolating system (A. Katz: "most 
grammaticalization researchers posit an isolating starting point").  So 
there are two questions: 1) what are the categories and operations of 
Language? and 2), how did Language get here in the first place?  The cycle 
of grammaticalization may tell us a lot in regard to the first question, I'm 
afraid the second question is much the most difficult.  Piraha may be 
somewhat analogous to blind cave fish.  It may say a lot about what can 
happen in an environment of deprivation, perhaps less about how Language got 

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "A. Katz" <amnfn at>
To: "jess tauber" <phonosemantics at>
Cc: <funknet at>
Sent: Thursday, May 25, 2006 7:22 AM
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Prosody-pragmatics rich language- the case of 

The linguistic cycle is well described by Dixon in THE RISE AND FALL OF

  "As languages change over time, they tend -- very roughly -- to move
around a typologiocal circle: isolating to agglutinating, to fusional,
back to isolating, and so on. If we place the isolating type at four
o'clock position, agglutinative at eight o'clock and fusional at twelve
o'clock, around a clock face, it is possible to describe recent movements
in various language families. Proto-Indo-European was at twelve o'clock
but modern branches of the family have moved at different rates, toward a
more isolating position." (pp. 41-42)

The question seldom addressed by functional linguists is which typology is
likely to have come first. It's an endless cycle, so finding a language at
any particular clock position proves nothing about how many cycles it has
undergone previously.

Undoubtedly Piraha~ has not always been exactly as it currently is
constituted, but there might conceivably be clues here to which position
is more likely to have been the starting point for all of us.

Without stating it directly, most grammaticalization researchers posit an
isolating starting point, since they see movement in the direction of
agglutinazation/ and or fusion as an indication of higher degrees of
change than movement in the direction of isolation. (Bybee, for instance,
actually counts degree of fusion as an indicator of degree of
grammaticlaization.) An endless cycle as Dixon describes, though, would
imply that the starting point is key. If you started out already fusional,
a movement toward isolating typology indicates a higher degree of
grammatical innovation.

To solve the riddle, we have to look to extralinguistic factors. Piraha~
fits into an already existing pattern whereby most isolated cultures
living in sociologically primitive situations (hunter gatherers with no
external contact or commerce, for instance) have languages
with surprisingly complex morphosyntactic typologies. Assuming that
these people were not previously members of highly complex trading
societies who later returned to a more primitive lifestyle, we would
conclude that complex morphosyntax is the more conservative typology. This
indicates that our original starting point was far from isolating.

Dr. Aya Katz, Inverted-A, Inc, P.O. Box 267, Licking, MO
65542 USA
(417) 457-6652 (573) 247-0055

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