Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?
The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.
Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).
We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?
The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.
The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.
Schaller meets Ildefonso
In the interview, Schaller describes how she originally became fascinated with sign language, when she happened into the very first lectures held in sign language by Lou Fant in 1972 in a course called ‘Visual Poetry.’ Hit by a catering truck near the end of high school, Schaller had been excused from her classes so she took the opportunity to sneak into college classes that sounded interesting at Cal State Northridge. She was so moved by what she saw that she wound up joining a volunteer signing drama group even though, as she puts it, she knew three signs when she signed up.
If you want more of Schaller’s story, I suggest you go to the original interview, or better yet, her book, but Schaller eventually wound up quite committed to signing. Asked to work as a sign interpreter, Schaller found herself in a class for ‘Reading skills’ that was little more than a warehouse for all the deaf students, no matter what their educational needs. In the midst of a swarm of signing and movement, she spotted an individual, clearly deaf, who was also clearly unable to sign:
I went to the door to walk out and was actually turning the handle to leave, when I see this man who looked so frightened. He was holding himself as if he were wearing a straightjacket. He was backed up in a corner, protecting himself. I saw that he was studying mouths, he was studying people. Even though he was frightened, he was still watching: what is happening, what is happening?
She observed as another aide, one who couldn’t sign very well, tried to reach the frightened man. When the other assistant gave up, Schaller tried to engage the man and his true situation started to dawn on her:
I walked up to him and signed, “Hello. My name is Susan.” He tried to copy that and did a sloppy rendition of “Hello, my name is Susan.” Obviously he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t language. And I was shocked.
He looked Mayan and I thought, well, if he knew Mexican sign language, he wouldn’t try to copy. That’s not a normal thing to do, even if you don’t know the language. I couldn’t walk away. I slowly figured out that this man had no language. As I said, I could see that he was very intelligent. I could see he was trying very hard. I was twenty-two years old. I had no idea of what I was doing. I was faced with how to communicate the idea of language to someone without language.
The man she would call, ‘Ildefonso,’ had figured out how to survive, in part by simply copying those around him, but he had no idea what language was. Schaller found that he observed people’s lips and mouth moving, unaware that they were making sound, unaware that there was sound, trying to figure out what was happening from the movements of the mouths. She felt that he was frustrated because he thought everyone else could figure things out from looking at each others’ moving mouths.
One problem for Schaller’s efforts was that Ildefonso’s survival strategy, imitation, actually got in the way of him learning how to sign because it short-circuited the possibility of conversation. As she puts it, Ildefonso acted as if he had a kind of visual echolalia (we sometimes call it ‘echopraxia’), simply copying the actions he saw:
He’d just try to form signs and copy what I was doing. But his facial expression was always, is this what I’m supposed to do?
That question was on his face all of the time. It was terribly frustrating. It went on hour after hour, for days and days and days. Then I had an idea. If I died tonight, I may have had only one truly brilliant thought in my life. What was it that attracted me to this man? His intelligence and his studiousness, the fact he was still trying to figure things out-those two things.
I decided to stop talking to him. Instead, I taught an invisible student. I set up a chair, and I started being the teacher to an invisible student in an empty chair. Then I became the student. I would get into the other chair and the student would answer the teacher. I did this over and over and over. And I ignored him. I stopped looking at him.
Even with the ‘brilliant idea,’ the road ahead was hard, and Schaller talks about wondering when one of them was going to give up. Finally, they had a breakthrough moment which I want to quote at length because it really is a remarkable story (I got goosebumps from reading it):
What happened is that I saw a movement. I stopped. I was talking to an empty chair, but out of my peripheral vision I saw something move. I look at Ildefonso and he had just become rigid! He actually sat up in his chair and became rigid. His hands were flat on the table and his eyes were wide. His facial expression was different from any I’d seen. It was just wide with amazement!
And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.
The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. [emphasis added, GD] But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.
That was his first “Aha!” He just went crazy for a few seconds, pointing to everything in the room and signing whatever I signed. Then he collapsed and started crying, and I don’t mean just a few tears. He cradled his head in his arms on the table and the table was shaking loudly from his sobbing. Of course, I don’t know what was in his head, but I’m just guessing he saw what he had missed for twenty-seven years.
Schaller argues that this is the ‘first breakthrough about what language is’: “Oh, everything has a name!” (from her account).
The account is powerful and moving, I find, and Schaller says that it changed both of their lives. For Ildefonso, he didn’t just learn that ‘things have names’ (at least in a given linguistic community), he simultaneously changed the way he thought and joined a community of people who can think in ways that are intimately tied to each other. The breakthrough was both internal and external, simultaneously cognitive and social.
For Schaller, the experience stuck with her, and she eventually sought out work on language-less adults. She couldn’t find anything, so she sent a letter to Oliver Sachs, who much eventually undergo apotheosis as the patron saint of the quirky and well-written account of psychopathology and neurological injury. Sachs wanted to meet her and told her, ‘You must write this down! In DETAIL!’ Sachs eventually wrote the preface to her book about Ildefonso.
The plight of the language-less
How many people are language-less? I have no idea, but Schaller does some hypothetical estimates that I found pretty shocking:
The first book is about one languageless person I met. But many people have treated him as a freak, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I knew this happens all the time. About 10% of the population in the world, on average, is born with some sort of hearing impairment. Out of that ten percent, one percent is profoundly deaf. That’s a basic statistic, but the really sad statistic is that 92% of all profoundly deaf people are born to hearing parents. Only 8% are lucky enough to be born to signing parents. So they have no handicap!
I doubt very much that her last point is accurate, but the key to this paragraph is to think about the numbers. Even if you start adjusting down the numbers she’s using — for example, suggesting that more than 8% of profoundly deaf children have parents who might be willing to learn sign language — you still have a very significant irreducible number of people who are likely to be language-less substantially into adolescence or beyond. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of this field, but I’d be fascinated to hear from someone who works in the area, for instance, with recently immigrated deaf individuals coming from developing countries where they might not have sign language communities.
In the absence of a sign-supporting community, deaf individuals likely can only develop rudimentary sign systems if they’re isolated from other deaf people; since no one else will be using the deaf person’s signs as a first language, it will likely have a reduced grammar and simple structure, at best. That is, if anyone is willing to sign to the unfortunate isolated individual at all – the tragic and disturbing fact is, as Schaller highlights, some groups are ideological opposed to making concessions, demanding that deaf individuals try to adapt to an unmoved (and unmoving) hearing population.
There are examples of communities of deaf people spontaneously inventing new sign languages, but the case of a profoundly deaf individual in a hearing community, isolated from other individuals struggling to communicate visually, would offer little opportunity for this kind of innovation (see, for example, the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, discussed here and here). Deprived of communication and symbolic interaction, it’s unclear how a personal language could really develop the stability or systematicity it would need to become a true language (Wittgenstein, for example, says that the idea of a private language is incoherent).
What is it like to live without language? Unfortunately, Ildefonso doesn’t help us too much with that:
It’s another frustration that Ildefonso doesn’t want to talk about it. For him, that was the dark time. Whenever I ask him, and I’ve asked him many, many times over the years, he always starts out with the visual representation of an imbecile: his mouth drops, his lower lip drops, and he looks stupid. He does something nonsensical with his hands like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” He always goes back to “I was stupid.”
It doesn’t matter how many times I tell him, no, you weren’t exposed to language and… The closest I’ve ever gotten is he’ll say, “Why does anyone want to know about this? This is the bad time.” What he wants to talk about is learning language.
Schaller is also passionate about the human rights of the deaf, and deeply critical of the movement to mainstream deaf children to the detriment of sign language learning. For example, the use of cochlear implants with deaf children can be seen as directly undermining the possibility that deaf kids will find a place in a signing community although it increases their chances of getting by in the majority hearing community. With the implants, children’s language development can be significantly delayed from what it would be with sign; it’s particularly ironic because kids can learn to sign quicker and earlier than they can learn to speak.
The use of cochlear implants and speech-only teaching methods, forcing children to, as much as possible, learn to lip read or build upon whatever artificially-enhanced hearing they might be able to get, is especially controversial in the deaf community. I had an MAA (Master of Applied Anthropology) student who did fascinating research on the deaf community in Australia, and she found that many members felt that their community was dying at the hands of these technologies and teaching ideologies (this is all particularly ironic because my home university, Macquarie, is a centre for research on cochlear implants).
In fact, I can see both sides of this argument although I favour the use of sign language; I worked as a teaching aide in a school for the deaf, and once upon a time, could hold my own in sign. For parents of deaf children, however, it must seem terrifying to have a child who will fundamentally live in a different community, within a deaf subculture, perhaps with diminished opportunities, justifying virtually any intervention. Schaller calls these interventions human rights violations: ‘What I see more and more is that the hearing world has completely medicalized this situation [being deaf]. I’m not saying parents are bad, but they are being influenced by the “experts,” and they are blind.’
In fact, she’s right on a number of levels, and fear of another person’s marginalization never justifies attempting to eradicate what makes them different: the same logic can lead to repression of children’s non-normal sexuality, suppression of minority languages or cultures and a host of other ‘interventions’ that just seek to make people ‘normal’ for their own good. But before I start down this road (and in to material I teach in my human rights classes), I want to get back to the question of cognition.
The role of language in cognition
There’s really no way to discuss the long and complicated philosophical tradition of discussing the relation between language and cognition without being glib and superficial, but, happily, I’m pretty adept at glib and superficial, so that won’t stop us. A number of philosophers, including Michael Dummet, have offered ‘strong’ theories of language’s role in thought. Their ‘language-first’ approaches argue to varying degrees that certain kinds of thought, or even reflective thought as a whole, is only possible once a community-wide practice of communication through language occurs. We can find strong and weak variants in the work of theorists like William Calvin, Merlin Donald and Daniel Dennett.
Language-first models predict that thought is more or less limited by the absence of language, the strongest suggesting that most of thought would be disrupted, and posit a definitive break in the forms of cognition available once human had produced language. The language-first approach also generally suggests that cognitive capacities vary with one’s language ability, meaning that not all linguistic communities likely have the same cognitive capacities. One noteworthy example is work on the Pirahã, a Brazilian Native American group whose language lacks numbers according to many researchers (see Frank et al. 2008, or a popular press version at The Independent or see the collection of Pirahã-related links at Language Log).
In contrast, opposing ‘thought-first’ arguments suggest that language expresses thought rather than being a precondition for thought occurring. For example, Jerry Fodor has argued that a prior ‘language-of-thought,’ sometimes referred to as ‘mentalese,’ underlies language ability, and partially explains similarities among languages. The thought-first model, however, can develop a problem of infinite regress, as it’s unclear how the ‘language-of-thought’ itself arises except from a prior set of symbols.
In the corner of the ‘thought-first’ argument, we could site a range of empirical evidence, such as the work of psychologists Susan Hespos and Elizabeth Spelke. Hespos and Spelke (2004), for example, found that five-month-old infants born to English-speaking parents perceived object relations concepts that were not highlighted in English, and that their parents did not see as perceptually salient (a relationship of ‘tight-’ and ‘loose-fitting’ that their research had shown to be salient to Korean speakers, whose language does highlight this distinction). That is, the infants in the English-language environment seemed to develop a pre-linguistic concept that was not supported by their first language, and thus the distinction atrophied and disappeared from their perceptions (much as sounds that are not featured in one’s language become less perceptually vivid after six months of age, eventually becoming hard to perceive).
In anthropology, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf are frequently credited with bringing into sharp focus the role of language in shaping perception and cognition, although they arguably offered a less deterministic account of the relationship than some language-first philosophers (see our posts, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of? and Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was right… about adults, for more of a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Their approach suggests that language biases perception, affecting how people are capable of perceiving, making some ideas or even qualities of the phenomenal world, more or less difficult to perceive. Coupled with work like that of Hespos and Spelke, the work on language biasing perception suggests that pre-linguistic perception is actually more attuned to sensory discrimination that may later disappear if not buttressed by language; that is, the pre-linguistic conceptual world is perhaps more attuned to certain gradations, less likely to overlook intermediate or uncategorized sensations.
When we actually look at the evidence in Schaller’s account, we find that neither a ‘language-first’ nor a ‘thought-first’ model seems to capture the inconsistency of Ildefonso’s conceptual capacities. Schaller suggests that his ‘brain was kept alive with problem solving,’ figuring out how to get money, whether by begging or working, find food and shelter, and interact with people who were unable to communicate with him.
Ironically, he seemed to understand certain sorts of symbolic processes, such as performative identity. Schaller says he apparently understood, for example, ‘macho behavior’ because he ‘could see that.’ But other sorts of processes – she says things Ildefonso ‘couldn’t see’ – they remained a mystery; she offers ‘history’ and immigration patrols in the US as two examples. In fact, of course, the division is not really visible-invisible (after all, border police are quite visible when they arrest a person), nor is it symbolic-non-symbolic (macho behaviour, after all, is a symbolically rich performance). Rather, Ildefonso’s difficulties and his successful abilities suggest to me that our own category of ‘symbol’ glosses cognitive capacities that are not all identically difficult, nor are they all dependent upon either shared symbol or language. That is, our concept of ‘symbol’ may, in fact, blind us to the very divisions that Ildefonso’s disability sketches out; not all symbols are equally symbolic, we might say. The degree of arbitrariness, for example, or the hierarchical nature of some symbols — premised on other symbols — might make them particularly opaque to the language-less.
For example, Schaller had the hardest time communicating to Ildefonso the concept of ‘idea’ itself. She discusses her attempt to mime ‘having an idea’:
How could a languageless man have any idea of what is happening in the head? But I was just hoping that there were enough cultural clues, and he was an observant man. I was grasping at straws. So I would mime having this idea in my head with my fists close to my head and then I would throw it out at your head, as my hands opened. Then I’d become the student and I’d catch it [laughs] and put it in my head.
I did as many variations as I could, again, over and over-hours, days, hours, days. Frustrating-the most frustrating task in my life! I’d look at him every once in a while and sometimes he looked tired, sometimes he looked frustrated, sometimes he looked as if I were crazy.
Of course, from some perspectives, she was crazy. She was miming a particularly obtuse embedded metaphor in English usage: that ideas are a substance in the head that can pop into existence and then be passed to other people’s heads, which is really experienced in the other person as an idea. On so many levels, the ‘idea-is-an-object-in-head-can-be-passed-to-another-head’ is pretty absurd, yet she was trying to use it to get a languageless man to understand the very possibility of language.
If it doesn’t sound absurd to you, think about it for a second; the very fact that Schaller was struggling so hard to get Ildefonso to perceive this demonstrates how long the chain of metaphoric assumptions is to get to this cultural common sense. Schaller wasn’t just asking Ildefonso to learn a name for a thing, she was asking him to recognize he had ‘ideas,’ conceive of ideas as things, locate ideas in his head, understand that ideas were different from every other kind of thing (popping into existence, for example), imagine that ideas could be thrown… You get the ‘idea.’ Damn weird thing, language. Makes you think all kind o’ crazy things.
Even after language, however, some ways of seeing the world were difficult to grasp. Schaller catches up with Ildefonso much later, visiting him as he’s working as a gardener, and likes to tease him by asking questions about when things happened.
However, there are a few things he doesn’t think differently about. I try to meet him once a year and I always ask him, “When was the last time we saw each other?” I ask him a “when” question because it tickles me. Time was the hardest thing for him to learn. And he always prefers to say “the winter season” or “the Christmas time.” He wants to point to a season or to a holiday. It’s not a cognitive problem. To this day, he thinks it’s weird that we count time the way we do. He can do it, but he doesn’t like it. Think about it. For twenty-seven years, he followed the sun. He followed cows. He followed the seasons. It’s that rain-time of the year.
As the interviewer points out, many languages do not treat time as an abstract, spatialized, undifferentiated flow but highlight differentiation, seasonality and sequence. Some conceptualize time as necessarily sequential (today is not like tomorrow) or as inherently differentiated (summer is fundamentally not like winter). Time is a classic example discussed by Whorf (1956) to highlight the links between culture, language and perception, and even though his account of time has been criticized on a number of grounds, anthropologists still tend to agree that understandings of time can differ, and that Western treatment of time as a kind of flow through undifferentiated, measurable durations is just one version or inflection of the sense of time with its own distinctive emphases.
My own feeling, and I have not worked with a population that has a non-Western sense of time, is that it’s likely a softer form of the Whorfian argument, that language and culture affect the perceptual qualities of different sensory channels to varying degrees (perhaps more in some phenomenal qualities than in others) is the most defensible (and arguably, this is what Whorf was arguing all along). Time, for example, may be difficult to perceive in certain ways if you are not culturally trained to habitually conducting yourself in relation to time appropriately: certainly, there is deep cultural difference in the degree to which people orient themselves by the clock, and varying emphases that societies place on recurrence or irreversibility of time. This isn’t to say that language is a perceptual world, but rather than languages can induce certain perceptual biases that may be more or less difficult to overcome. But what about those without language?
As part of her discussion of the human rights of the deaf, Schaller makes the argument, familiar also from Benjamin Whorf (and also brought up in the commentary on Henrich’s WEIRD article) that language diversity itself is an insight into human cognitive diversity: ‘Every language is an outcome of how the human brain works. We don’t know how much we can do with our one brain, even, and each language has used the brain in a slightly different way.’ However, there’s an even deeper and more profound cognitive diversity in her discussion of Ildefonso: the possibility of language-less human thought, something that theorists like Merlin Donald have attempted to discuss.
In contrast to the absolute inability Idefenso had getting the idea of ‘idea,’ or his struggles with points in time, he clearly was capable of all sorts of tasks that suggest he was not mentally inert or completely vacant. He had survived into adulthood, crossed into the US, kept himself from being mowed down in traffic or starving to death. Moreover, he and other languageless individuals had apparently figured out ways to communicate without a shared language, which I find both phenomenally intriguing and difficult to even imagine (putting aside the definitional problem of distinguishing human communication from ‘language’ broadly construed).
Schaller highlights that learning language isolated Ildefonso from other languageless individuals. Schaller explains:
The only thing he said, which I think is fascinating and raises more questions than answers, is that he used to be able to talk to his other languageless friends. They found each other over the years. He said to me, “I think differently. I can’t remember how I thought.” I think that’s phenomenal!
I agree with Schaller, and I suspect that Ildefonso might be suggesting a way in which certain cognitive skills and communicative channels had actually atrophied with the incursion of language into his life, or even become impossible once language had intruded upon them. Language was not simply an addition to his cognitive repertoire; it may have displaced or disrupted other forms of thought and interaction.
From the perspective of a language-saturated world this seems improbable; we tend to think of ourselves as cognitively complete, profoundly abled, without limit. But clearly Ildefonso and other languageless individuals had to find some way to compensate for their deficits, whether it was through mimetic thinking (which is one possibility) or through some other constellation of adaptations. This languageless cognition would not be simply prelinguistic, childlike thought because adult languageless individuals function much more adeptly than four-year-olds. But how this non-linguistic, adult cognition might operate, what it might include, is a bit of a mystery and seems fragile in the face of language learning. I don’t think it’s purely mimetic, even though imitation was Ildefonso’s strategy in social learning, because there are many situations in which there’s simply no role model to imitate. Likewise, we find other primates who are non-linguistic are often good problem solvers without imitating (or imitating much less adeptly than humans).
A neuroanthropological perspective
So can people have thought without words? Well, the evidence-based answer would seem to be, yes, but it’s not the same sort of thought. Some things appear to be easier to ‘get’ without language (such as imitation of action), other things appear to be a kind of ‘all-at-once’ intuition (such as suddenly realizing all things have names), and other ideas are difficult without language being deeply enmeshed with cognitive development over long periods of time (like an English-based understanding of time as quantitative and spatialized). In other words, language is not simply an either/or proposition, but part of a cognitive developmental niche that shapes both our abilities and (unperceived) disabilities relative to the fully cognitively matured language-less individual.
The case of Ildefonso suggests that not all ‘thought’ is either neurologically or practically similar. Ildefonso had managed to survive, and clearly had thoughts, but he was also obviously confused by some basic qualities of the language-saturated world in which he had to live, not least of which was social interaction. Even without very basic capacities – like, apparently, naming itself, the seemingly first act of applying a symbolic icon to a recurring element in perceptually reality – he managed in day-to-day life and was emphatically ‘human,’ although operating with unusual cognitive capacities.
The evidence that Schaller presents on the relationship of language to different cognitive skills correlates also with the evidence from child development, widely recognized as demonstrating a progression through skills of varying complexity. For example, Western children seem to understand the concept of ‘pretending’ or ‘imagining’ a couple of years before they understand the concept of ‘believing,’ although to an adult, the concepts might seem to be logically linked. These concepts are not pre-established in a ‘language of thought,’ nor are they just the result of language socialization shaping cognition as, in both cases, we would not expect them to emerge at staggered time intervals. Not all words are equally easy to learn, nor is every cognitive ability equally dependent upon language (although some functions might be accomplished both pre-linguistically and post-linguistically using different mechanisms, so that continuity of function masks discontinuity of means).
To be honest, I wish I could write something deeper and more interesting about the case. I find myself pondering without much success what life would be like without language, how I might learn to compensate or develop other ways of accomplishing the same tasks, but I’m stopped short by the realization that language has been knit into my neurological functioning to such a significant degree that words are my constant inner companion. Even when I find that I have not been engaged in an inner dialogue, it is like waking from a sleep, unable to recall a dream that fast slips away. Perhaps like Ildefonso, I cannot talk about a languageless ‘dark’ once in the linguistic ‘light,’ even though there is a rich potential for action and perception in the dark.
For more information:
Keep Talking, James Castle, by Susan Schaller — a piece about a deaf man from Idaho who, in spite of attending a school for the deaf, did not learn to read, write, sign, speak, or lip-read, ‘perhaps by choice.’ He was, however, a fascinating artist who appeared to create a visual language of his own.
Recursion and Human Thought: Why the Pirahã don’t have numbers. A Talk With Daniel L. Everett on Edge: The Third Culture.
Image of Susan Schaller from her website.
Frank, Michael C., Daniel L. Everett, Evelina Fedorenko, and Edward Gibson. 2008. Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition 108 (3): 819-.824 doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.04.007
Hespos, Susan J., and Elizabeth S. Spelke. 2004. Conceptual precursors to language. Nature 430: 453-456. doi:10.1038/nature02634
Schaller, Susan. 1995. A Man Without Words. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Whorf, Benjamin. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. John B. Carroll, ed. MIT Press