So, I am reading Dan Everett’s very interesting book Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes. His data and observations I trust very much, but his analyses are bizarre, as the following indicates:

But as I investigated further, the only way to get something like The dog’s tail’s tip is broken is “Giopaí xígatoi baábikoi, xaóxio” (The dog’s tail is bad, on the tip). What I discovered is that no more than one possessor can occur in a given phrase (dog is the possessor of tail, for example). If there were no recursion in the language, this would make sense. You can get one possessor without recursion by simply having a cultural or linguistic understanding shared by speakers that when two nouns are next to each other, the first one is interpreted as the possessor. But it you have two possessors in the clause, one of them has to be in a phrase that is within another phrase.
— from Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes, p. 235

His suggestion that two noun phrases adjacent is fine without recursion (by which we mean some kind of embedding recursion, in the sense used, admittedly, somewhat vaguely in linguistics) is very strange. The options for what he’s saying seem, to me, to be these:

  • The extra noun phrase can exist there because it is not occurring within the main noun phrase — therefore, it is another argument to the verb, interpreted as modifying the noun? — and the verb only has one such slot available. This would be Seriously Weird.
  • There is no structure in (Pirahã) syntax, and you can just throw words together, but not more than two related noun phrases!

Neither of these make much sense, and neither address his point about recursion at all. It would seem that the more likely structure would be that the possessing noun phrase is within the main noun phrase, which is already embedding recursion. Or, if we accept the “throw out all structure” hypothesis, there seems to be no reason why you couldn’t have an arbitrary number of noun phrases all adjacent, each modifying the other. Am I missing something here?

Of course, another possibility that he does not even mention is that Pirahã has recursion with a very shallow depth as an ending condition. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the Pirahã have only one level of noun possessing that they can happily deal with — for English, the maximum depth seems to be two or three possessors, as “mother’s sister’s boyfriend’s dog” verges on the infelicitous. Grammatical and comprehensible, sure, but imagine the markedness (giving it all sorts of special pitch stuff) one would put on the phrase when saying it.