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Language: The Cultural Tool
Daniel Everett
Profile Books (2012)
London EC1 0JH
ISBN-13: 978-1-84668267-4

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I came to Everett's work via his first book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes where he describes his life as a missionary living amongst the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon jungle. As a nutritional anthropologist and author (Deadly Harvest), I have lived with various native peoples for many years and, like Everett, have taken pains to speak and study deeply the local lingos.

I heard Everett speak at the LSE in London and was intrigued by the language dimension of his work with the Pirahã. This work has led him to take issue with the prevailing paradigm in linguistics, Chomsky's "Universal Grammar". This is the idea that humans are born with a brain prewired with a basic grammar `operating system'. This then runs the `program' (language) of the society into which the child is born. The eminent psycho-linguist Steven Pinker gave currency to these notions and brought them to the general public in his popular book The Language Instinct . This Chomskian view is often called `nativism' and the people who promote this view `nativists'.

This 'nativist' paradigm treats the ability to learn a language as something innate, it is a `biological tool', just as an eye is. This view predicts that ALL languages will share certain features of complex thinking like subordinate clauses (e.g. "I know that he is here"), recursion (e.g. "Mary knows that I know what her husband is thinking"), counting (e.g. "I have three children"), and sophisticated tenses like the conditional (e.g. "If I feel well, I will sing") or the perfect (e.g. "The girl had eaten the cookie before she ate her lunch").

The contrarian view is to say that language and its grammar is a skill we learn in order to survive in our cultural environment and in this respect it is a `cultural tool'. This view predicts that grammars will be as complex or as simple as the cultural environment requires, not more or less.

Everett finds, from his study of Pirahã and other Amazonian languages, that, fatally to the prevailing `nativist' hypothesis, they do not have features like recursion, subordinate clauses and so forth.

He uses a minimum of technical language and, where Everett does go into grammatical concepts, he explains them carefully so that the lay reader has no difficulty following them. All is illustrated with delightful anecdotes and misunderstandings with his Pirahã hosts.

For example, as a missionary he translated the gospels with their accounts of Jesus' doings. When the Pirahã learned that Everett didn't know Jesus personally, they couldn't grasp what or why he was telling them - in their culture you only talk about things you know first hand.

Mothers knew the names of all their children all right, but they had no concept, let alone the language, to express the actual number of children.

In claiming that language is a cultural tool, Everett is taking on the Universal Grammar establishment but, in a manner reminiscent of [[ASIN:1619491303 Origin of Species]], he does so mildly (even humbly) yet fearlessly and persuasively. Interestingly, support for Everett's view is coming from linguistic experiments such as those carried out by Simon Kirby at the University of Edinburgh. They don't support `nativism' either but do support the idea that `culture is everything'.

Everett's killer point is this: The features and peculiarities of  ALL languages, can be explained by their use of standard brain circuitry; moreover, languages are simply cultural tools adapted to their ecological niche. You don't need to postulate a brain module somehow pre-wired by evolution for a specialized Universal Grammar.

Read this book for a refreshing look at this fascinating field of linguistics. But there is a bonus. This is not a dry, academic work; it is suffused with humanity. There can be no finer testimony than to quote Everett's own words toward the end of the book:

"Like angst-free, realized existentialists, [the Pirahã] embrace the accomplishments of each day and find meaning in their lives without worrying about their children's future or what posterity will think of them. They stare into the eyes of death without blinking and live their physically demanding lives almost constantly laughing and smiling. Their happiness and their lack of worry, the absence of preoccupation with the past, their refusal to fear the future, these things have shaped their language so as to exclude talk about remote times, whether future or past, and to eschew numbers and counting, and to avoid complex sentences, because only people, things and events for which there is direct evidence can participate, placing the burden of their communications on their stories rather than their sentences. They reject career goals and enjoy each day as it comes."