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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.
Introduction: The Gift of Prometheus 1
Part 1 Problems 11
Chapter 1 Language as a Social Tool 13
Chapter 2 From Fire to Communication 31
Chapter 3 Crossing the Communication Threshold 46
Chapter 4 Does Plato Have a Problem? 63
Part 2 Solutions 81
Chapter 5 Universals and Faculties 83
Chapter 6 How to Build a Language 104
Chapter 7 The Platforms for Language 156
Part 3 Applications 181
Chapter 8 Aristotle's Answer: Interaction and the Construction of Cultural Signs 183
Chapter 9 Language the Tool 220
Part 4 Variations 253
Chapter 10 Language, Culture, and Thinking 255
Chapter 11 You Drink. You Drive. You Go to Jail. Cultural Effects on Grammar 273
Chapter 12 Welcome to the Freak Show 302
Conclusion: Grammars of Happiness 322
Appendix: Extract from Plato's Meno 328
List of Figures 333
Suggested Reading 334
Posted April 6, 2013
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).
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