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Language: The Cultural Tool

Language: The Cultural Tool

4.5 2
by Daniel L. Everett

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A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain—as most linguists argue—but as a tool unique to each culture world-wide, and as essential to human society as fire.

For years the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes. Daniel Everett argues that, like


A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain—as most linguists argue—but as a tool unique to each culture world-wide, and as essential to human society as fire.

For years the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes. Daniel Everett argues that, like other tools, language was invented by humans and can be reinvented or lost, and he makes clear how this tool is influenced by and expresses the variety of human societies and experiences. Combining anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and his own pioneering—and adventurous—research with the Amazonian Pirahã, Everett gives us an unprecedented elucidation of this society-defined nature of language. In doing so, he offers us a new understanding of our selves.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Is language a genetically programmed instinct or something we pick up from the culture around us? This central controversy in linguistics and philosophy is roiled in this unfocused but stimulating treatise. Challenging Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, and other partisans of “nativism,” which holds that certain kinds of knowledge are hard-wired into us (e.g., Chomsky’s “universal grammar” underlying all languages), linguist Everett (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes) argues that language is a practical tool for communicating and social bonding, determined by cultural needs and the practicalities of information sharing, that children learn through general intelligence. His sketchy, disorganized treatment touches on neuroscience, linguistics, and information theory; most tellingly, he spotlights nativists’ failure to demonstrate that any meaningful universal grammar exists. Along the way, Everett regales readers with the quirks of the Amazonian Indian languages and cultures he studies—some have no words for numbers or colors—in anecdotes that are sometimes cogent but often just colorful. Everett’s rambling, overstuffed exposition often loses its thread, and his discussion of cultural influences on language can be more truistic than incisive. Still, readers who hack through the undergrowth will find a compelling riposte to the reigning orthodoxies in linguistics. Photos. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
Everett (Dean of Arts and Sciences/Bentley Univ.; Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, 2008, etc.) challenges Noam Chomsky, arguing that grammar and language are learned. The author begins and ends with images of fire, calling language "the cognitive fire." After some obligatory comments about how he intends to be fair with his opponents, he soars off into his thesis about how language is a tool--one that we acquire rather than inherit genetically, rather like a bow and arrow. Throughout, Everett endeavors to leaven his otherwise heavy narrative with anecdotes (especially about his years living with the Amazonian Pirahã) and with allusions to music and to popular culture--among others, he looks at Phil Spector, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Mick Jagger and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The author dismisses the idea that there's a "language gene," and he explains linguistic terms like Zipf's Law, discreteness, contingency and recursion. He finds ways to chip chinks in Chomsky's armor and dives gleefully into the controversy surrounding Benjamin Whorf, who maintained that our languages circumscribe our thoughts. Everett closely examines the Pirahã, noting that they have no words for numbers or colors, but mothers nonetheless know how many children they have. He pauses now and then for more extensive explanations of related topics, like cross-cultural ideas of kinship, noting that our (American) terms for first and second cousin (and the notion of "removed") are disappearing because we no longer use them. The author grieves at the loss of any language, takes a shot or two at public schools for their failure to teach about dialects and notes how each language makes its speakers happy. Readers' eyes will sometimes sparkle with new insight, sometimes glaze at the dense exposition.
From the Publisher

“Full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett’s years with the Pirahã . . . [Language] is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The most important—and provocative—anthropological fieldwork ever undertaken.” —Tom Wolfe

“Revelatory. There is nothing about humans that is quite as astonishing as language.”—The Guardian
“A book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. This is an intellectual cri de coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity. . . . Very rich but also very readable.”—The Sunday Times (London)

“[Language] is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book . . . A useful study of a burgeoning theory compatible with Darwinism, anthropology, psychology and philosophy—an interdisciplinary orientation the Chomskyans have largely spurned.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Language] deserves a serious reading.” —The Economist
“Readers’ eyes will . . . sparkle with new insight.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Everett’s stories of the Pirahã . . . bring to life the culture that fosters the language. The stories also anchor his linguistic proposals in anthropology. Most linguists might take this as an insult; Everett would accept it as a compliment.” —The Globe and Mail (Canada)
“[Everett lobs] a scientific grenade . . . into the spot where anthropology, linguistics and psychology meet: he asserts that the Piraha language exhibits traits that call into question aspects of linguistic theories that have been widely accepted for decades.” —Chicago Tribune
“Everett writes simply and persuasively about language. . . . His courage and conviction should give linguists pause for thought.” —The Observer (London)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.80(h) x 1.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Gift of Prometueus
The Greeks told a myth about one of mankind’s greatest tools, fire. The story’s hero was Prometheus, whose name means foreseer. Prometheus grew fond of the creatures that Zeus had asked him to help create, man and woman. He watched them with pity as they huddled cold and fearful of the dark, stumbling blindly after every setting of the sun. He knew the solution to their problem—fire. But Zeus did not want humans to have fire. Fire would give humans more power than Zeus intended. They might even rival the gods themselves. So Zeus forbad it.
Prometheus knew the risks of disobeying the king of the gods. Yet for pity and for love he smuggled a charcoal lit by Apollo’s fiery chariot out of Olympus in a fennel stalk. No matter how pure his motives, Prometheus paid a horrible price for his charity. Zeus condemned him to an eternity of pain chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where each day his liver was consumed by a large vulture, regenerating every night in order to fuel his pain on the morrow. Only when the mighty Hercules slew the vulture and broke the chains was Prometheus freed.
The myth of Prometheus, like all good myths, encapsulates cultural values and offers answers to keep a group of Homo curious satisfied until a better answer comes along. In this myth we can take away the belief that fire originated once in the human story. We are given a glimpse of the problems that fire was meant to solve. And we are taught that the coming of fire was a momentous event in human history. The Hebrews’ myths also include a narrative about their gods coming to fear the growth of human power. But the Hebrew story differs dramatically from the Greeks’. The Hebrews’ scriptures recognize that the power of language is greater than that of fire. The Hebrew god is not threatened by humans’ control of fire, but rather by their ability to talk to one another. From this appreciation for the power of language emerges the Hebrew myth of the Tower of Babel—the tower that was raised to threaten the gates (Bab) of god (El). In this myth God is not worried about the physical technology of his creation, whether picks, axes, fire, or the like. He is instead infuriated by humans’ ability to work together. This threatens his power. And their cooperation rests upon on their communication. So God scatters his people across the face of the earth. Or as the Bible puts it:
And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.’ ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
—Genesis 11: 6–9 New American Standard Bible
Ironically, the Hebrew god was not a linguist. He did not seem to realize that diversity strengthens Homo sapiens, and diversity in language and culture strengthens us the most. According to the Bible, God created one man, Adam, and gave him the charge of learning about and naming the flora and fauna of creation. By spreading Adam’s descendants around the globe God in effect created a thousand Adams, learning about and naming not just the Garden of Eden, but the entire world—wherever the children of Prometheus have gone, they have taken fire and language to master and learn about their world. This means that no one of us speaks the ‘right’ language. We all speak the language(s) that helps us and these languages are formed to meet the needs of our culture and social situation.
The Hebrews were right about one thing, though. The uttering of the first noun or verb, as non-momentous as that sounds, was arguably of greater importance than the stealing of fire from the gods of Olympus. Nouns and verbs are the basis of human civilization. Without these and other words, we could not utter history and life-changing phrases like ‘I now pronounce you man and wife,’ ‘This must be the place,’ or ‘I name this ship the Titanic.’ If it were not for words, Founding Father Patrick Henry could never have uttered his famous sequence of two nouns, one pronoun, one disjunctive particle, and one verb, ‘Give me Liberty, or give me Death!’ With nouns and verbs society was founded. With nouns and verbs the growth of human knowledge began.
Naturally, therefore, a research question that captivates many modern thinkers is precisely the origin of nouns, verbs, sentences, stories, and other elements of human language. Did language and its parts come about suddenly or did they emerge gradually as cultural adaptations?
This book is about the development of this great linguistic tool of our brains and communities, the cognitive fire that illuminates the lonely space between us far more brightly than the light of flames ever could. Here we look at the story of mankind’s greatest tool, its purposes, and how it might have come to be.
Unlike physical fire, the cognitive fire of language did not exist before humans called it into being. And every individual and culture in the history of our race places its own mark upon this tool. It is an invention that envelops all humans. It unites. It divides. It warms our hearts. It chills our souls. It invigorates our bodies and steels young men for battle. It gives us the greatest pleasure of all—focused and ordered thoughts. We have become Homo loquax, as author Tom Wolfe calls us, or ‘speaking man’. We are the masters of this raging cognitive fire.
Language’s contribution to our mastery of the world is one way in which it serves as a tool. It is our greatest display of cognitive technology. It is the basis for an arsenal that includes mathematics, science, philosophy, art, and music. Language enables our brains to do things they could not do without it, like solving arithmetical problems, following recipes, and thinking about where our children are going after school.
No linguist, psychologist, anthropologist, or philosopher would disagree that language is useful. But there is enormous disagreement about where this tool came from. Some say that language was discovered by chance, like fire. Others believe that one brilliant Homo sapiens might have invented it 75,000 years or so ago, as the Cherokee chief Sequoya invented writing for his people. Still others claim that language is genetically encoded in the human mind, the fortuitous by-product of packing our skulls full of an unprecedented number of neurons.
Easily the most famous answer to this question, though, is that language is part of our genetic endowment and that, because of this, all human languages share an almost identical grammar—which includes sound systems and meanings. Under this view, the only significant differences between languages are their vocabularies. But this is not the only available explanation for the growth and presence of language in all humans. As I have said, I do not even think it is the best answer.
This is not a book about why one view of language is wrong and why another view is correct—although it does not shy away from stating its conclusions. Rather, this is a story about the joy of language, a joy that has filled my soul during more than thirty years of field research among indigenous societies of the Americas and life among my fellow Homo loquaces. From each of the nearly two dozen languages I have studied in the Amazon, Mexico, and the United States over the past decades, I have learned things about the nature of our species and our ability to communicate that I never would have learned by living a different life. I have learned about humans’ relation to nature and about perspectives on living and speaking in a world delineated by the ancient cultures of the jungle. I have learned how words reach into my heart and change my life, from the poetry of e.e. cummings and the prose of William James to the fireside stories of the human family. Language gives humans their humanity.
But how did this marvelous artifact originate? How is it that all humans possess it? Why are there so many similarities between languages if each one is a tool for a specific culture? And what does it mean, finally, to say that language is a tool? Is this just a way of speaking?
The last question answers them all.

Meet the Author

DANIEL L. EVERETT is dean of Arts and Sciences, Bentley University. He was previously chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at Illinois State University.

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Language: The Cultural Tool 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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). 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Daniel has a nice way with words. Sometimes I feel like I am in the story. Very intriguing!