Language: The Cultural Toolby Daniel L. Everett
For years, the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes, existing as an innate and instinctual part of us. In this bold and provocative study, linguist Daniel Everett argues that, like other tools,
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In this very accessible book Daniel Everett discusses empirical findings about Pirahã and several other languages. He proposes a theory that can account for these findings and draws on research in anthropology, primatology, developmental psychology, and computational modeling to defend his proposal. For him “language is an instrument for solving the general problem of communication in conformity with the values and the rankings between values of special cultural groups” (p. 301). One of the main reasons leading Everett to this conclusion was his detailed study of the language of the Pirahãs, a small tribe living isolated from western civilization in the Amazonian jungle. Their language has often been described as exotic because it differs in surprising ways from many known languages and reminds us that “diversity rather than similarity [is] the hallmark of human language” (p. 85). After decades of research, Everett concluded that Pirahã has no words for colors or numbers, no recursive sentences, and that it is not only spoken but also hummed (to disguise the speakers identity or communicate with infants), yelled (to communicate ‘long-distance’), sung (to communicate new information or communicate with spirits), and whistled (only used by males to communicate while hunting, p. 271). Everett explains convincingly how the different modes of “speech” fit different communicative functions. The lack of numbers, color terms, and recursion is explained invoking “an ‘immediacy of experience principle’, which values talk of concrete, immediate experience over abstract, unwitnessed and hence non-immediate topics” (p. 262). Importantly, Everett does not claim that Pirahãs are incapable of perceiving color differences or expressing recursive thought. But, given the demands of their culture, they have shaped a specific language tool that ‘works’ in a way that is fundamentally different from many other known languages. Because their language lacks sentential recursion, they use discursive recursion to engage in recursive reasoning. This means that not all sentences of English are translatable into Pirahã. But if Everett’s tool hypothesis is correct we should expect this because language is a tool created by the members of one community, shaped by their specific cultural needs. For isolated tribes translatability into exotic languages like English has no practical value. Anyone who approaches Language the Cultural Tool with an open mind will be rewarded because even readers who eventually disagree with Everett’s main proposal will learn much along the way and, hopefully, agree with one of Everett’s main messages: All human languages are equally important because every language is “a repository of the riches of a highly specialized cultural experience...providing us with different ways of thinking about life” (p. 303).
Daniel has a nice way with words. Sometimes I feel like I am in the story. Very intriguing!