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Language:The Cultural Tool

Daniel Everett

In the Wari' language of Brazil, the word for 'wife' translates as 'our vagina'. Your first reaction is probably that this is insultingly reductive, and that the Wari' men accord very low status to their women. On second thoughts, perhaps the word honours the women as the very source of life and is thus the highest possible compliment the men could pay. Which is it to be?

Daniel Everett, despite having co-authored the only grammar of the Wari' language, cannot answer that question. In fact, nobody can answer that question without conducting a systematic analysis - a 'thick description', in anthropological terms - of Wari' culture. And that is the big point: language is, ultimately, the tool of a culture.

Or take the Piraha people deep in the Amazonian jungle. Everett spent a total of 30 years with them and speaks the language fluently. In the early years, he - a white-faced, red-bearded man who plainly was not Piraha - would address them in their own tongue. They stared at him with open-mouthed amazement and did not respond. They regarded him, he realised, as 'a big, bipedal parrot'; he was merely mouthing the words - he could not possibly know what they meant. In technical terms, they could not extend their own 'theory of mind' to include a non-Piraha. Their language is who they, uniquely, are.

Everett has now emerged from the jungle - he is dean of arts at Bentley University in Massachusetts - to produce a book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. This is an intellectual cri de coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity. After reading it, you will - should - care as much about disappearing languages as you do about the clubbed seal or the ­harpooned whale. But, first, you need to know about Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky is to linguistics what Freud once was to psychoanalysis: he is the subject itself. But it was Freud's fate to be overthrown, and that is what is now happening to Chomsky; after this book, it is hard to imagine how he will be resurrected. Irascible Chomsky now regards Everett as a charlatan.

The argument is about nature ­versus nurture. After the evils of Nazi naturism - the Jews, they said, were 'naturally' inferior - intellectuals became nurturists, believing that people were made, and could be improved, by society. The pendulum started to swing back in the 1970s and 1980s with the arrival of evolutionary psychology and a new belief in the existence of 'human nature'. The orthodoxy since then - propagated by EO Wilson, Steven Pinker and, pre-eminently, Chomsky - has been that we come into the world equipped with a battery of 'instincts', including language, derived from our Darwinian inheritance.

In the case of language, one big argument for this is the speed with which children learn to speak, picking up vocabulary and complex syntax in a few months. Chomsky said this was because we are born with a capacity for a universal grammar, and that, ultimately, all languages could be traced back to this biologically determined form.

Reasonable as this may sound, there is very little - Everett would say there is no - evidence for an inborn universal grammar. There is no 'language instinct', as Pinker calls it, because a language is learnt and an instinct, by definition, is not.

This book is an assembly of empirical evidence against Chomsky and Pinker. Children, for example, do not learn syntax as such, they learn words and sentences as units of meaning. This gives them a feeling for sentences, which becomes, in adult terms, syntax. Similarly, there is no universal ­grammar that can be detected beneath all the 7,000 languages in the world. The variety is as bewildering in languages as it is in forms of behaviour, because languages are tools of the culture from which they spring; they are, in a sense, the greatest works of art that humans have ever created.

Crucially, this means that human cultures can be opaque to each other. 'Different languages and different cultures can,' Everett writes, 'produce different thoughts.' Language is a cultural, not a biological, tool, precisely because it gives meaning to the world in which it is formed; it is not some pure Platonic entity that adapts itself to that world, it is a product of the world. So, to know why wives are called vaginas in Wari', you need, as far as possible, to become a Wari'.

This is to scratch the surface of a very rich but also very readable book. Everett is not the first to challenge the reign of Chomsky, but he is the most accessible, and, thanks to his years in Amazonia, the most-intimately informed. But, graduates in linguistics, beware: you may discover you have been horribly mistaught.

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Economist review

FOR half a century an influential group of Western linguists, led by Noam Chomsky, have argued that language is an innate human faculty, the product of a 'language organ' in the mind. Other prominent 'innatists' include Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist and author of 'The Language Instinct', and Derek Bickerton, a linguist at the University of Hawaii and developer of a 'bioprogramme' theory of language. Innatists believe that all languages share fundamental features. And linguistic innatism is part of a wider debate about just how much of human nature is wired into the brain.

Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts, disagrees on both innatism and the fundamental similarity of languages. He spent years learning tiny languages in forbidding jungle villages, experiences he recounted in his 2008 memoir, 'Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes'. (A former Christian missionary whose original goal was spreading the gospel, he fell away from his faith.) In his new book, 'Language: The Cultural Tool', Mr Everett moves away from narrow linguistic anthropology to broad theory. He argues that language is not the product of a 'language organ' but an extension of general intelligence.

Instead of unfolding in the same way in Paris and Papua New Guinea, languages are crafted by their speakers to meet their needs. He cites the Piraha, the Brazilian Amazonian group he has spent the longest time living with. There are no numbers beyond two in Piraha because, Mr Everett argues, they have no money, engage in little barter trade, do not store food for the future and do not think about the distant past. This 'living for the moment', which the Piraha enjoy (they think Western life sounds dreadful), shapes their language.

That different cultures have different words is unsurprising. It is when these differences affect cognition (the Piraha cannot do maths, for example) that things get interesting. But Mr Everett's most controversial argument, and his biggest challenge to linguistic innatism, is about grammar.

Mr Chomsky has argued that 'recursion' is the key feature of all human language. This is the embedding of smaller units inside bigger ones: a subordinate clause is a kind of recursion, embedding a sentence in a bigger one. Mr Everett says that the Piraha lack grammatical recursion, and that even if recursion is universal (Piraha use it in stories if not within sentences), this does not prove the existence of the language organ. Information is naturally organised with smaller bits nesting inside larger ones. That nearly all humans would find this linguistically useful is little different than widely varying societies independently inventing the bow and arrow - it is simply useful, and no proof of an instinct. True instincts, like turtles making their way to the sea or ducklings bonding with their mothers, require no learning. Language does. Animals do not truly excel in their deployment of basic instincts, whereas some humans clearly use language much better than others.

But Mr Everett, in trying to reach a popular audience while making an argument aimed at professional linguists, makes some awkward compromises. He cites a paper by other researchers claiming to have found that there are no features that are common to all languages, an argument that is crucial to his thesis. But he does not give enough detail for the reader. Later he even contradicts himself, saying that all languages have nouns and verbs.

He argues that differences between societies lead to profound differences between languages, but fails to drive the point home fully. The Wari' people use the word 'hole' or 'vagina' as the ordinary word for 'wife'. Could this be denigrating of women? Or, since the birth canal is the point of departure for human life, could it be a way of praising them? Mr Everett is not sure. Or take Banawa, another Amazonian language, in which the default gender of an unknown person or mixed group of people is feminine, not masculine as in most languages. The Banawa also practise rigid gender segregation, even whipping young girls bloody after their first menstruation. Could the unusual gender-assignment of Banawa be a product of this gender-segregated Banawa society? 'The only answer at present is, 'Perhaps',' he writes. Even the lack of grammatical recursion in Piraha, Mr Everett's key piece of evidence that it is culture that creates language, cannot tell the whole tale. Similar tribal cultures have languages bristling with recursion.

Mr Everett thinks it possible that culture influences grammar, but he is not sure. He acknowledges that conjecture about what causes linguistic differences has been a staple of much irresponsible amateur linguistics. It is hard to work out where culture has affected language, where language affects culture and cognition (a hot topic of psycholinguistic research), and where the differences are unrelated. Mr Everett has taken a shot across the innatists' bow, and an impressively modest and reasoned one given that Mr Chomsky once called him a charlatan. His case is not wholly proven, but it deserves a serious reading, and a response beyond name-calling.

NY Times Review

Few linguists doubt that natural selection has played a part in humans' linguistic ability. We all speak. Our vocal tract is honed to produce the sonic richness and precision of speech. Animals couldn't speak even if they wanted to. In the 1960s, however, Noam Chomsky pushed the envelope with a radical proposal: a theory that humans have an innate mental apparatus specifically devoted to assembling words into sentences - an inborn 'language organ.'

The literature on this, as intriguing as it may sound, would leave most readers alternately puzzled and drowsy. The idea is that a sentence starts in an almost unrecognizably abstract state, as a bare, treelike structure quite different from the ones some will recall from schoolroom diagraming. To say 'He rolled the ball down the hill,' for example, we hang 'He' from the tree and then hang a separate sentence, 'The ball rolled down the hill,' a little ways over. Then 'rolled' jumps left over 'the ball' and lands on a hitherto empty branch. That branch's job is to jolt a verb like 'rolled' into meaning the action of 'He' rather than the action of the ball. O.K. Then, for reasons even more occult, 'He' does its own leftward jump, abandoning the branch where it started - although this leaves no pause after 'He' when we utter the sentence.

All that to get a ball down a hill, and I left out some tricky bits. These phantom leaps make sense only with ingrown justifications that, by the year, have less and less to do with developments in psychology, biology or genetics. Yet adherents to Chomsky's theory can be pitilessly dismissive of detractors as just not up for serious abstraction.

It is the Chomskyan take on language that Daniel L. Everett, a linguist best known for his work in the Amazon among the Piraha, challenges in 'Language: The Cultural Tool.' Chomsky argues that language is too complex, and mastered by children too quickly, for it to be a learned skill like riding a bicycle. There must be a genetic program for learning language, which as a pan-human trait should be applicable to any language a child hears. Languages seem so vastly different from one another, but for Chomskyans this is a mere matter of word shapes; in terms of how we put the words together, languages are all minor variations on a single universal grammar - the one underlying that jumping-He-on-the-tree phenomenon.

Fiddle with some switches and English's grammar becomes Japanese's. Fiddle again and you get Mohawk, in which you say 'He fish-likes' instead of 'He likes fish.' Babies just have to figure out which switches the language they’re learning requires them to fiddle with.

Yet after almost 50 years, serious evidence for a universal grammar remains elusive. Everett aptly quotes the psycholinguist Michael Tomasello's judgment - 'Universal grammar is dead' - and adds: 'It was a good idea. It didn't pan out.'

How humans learn language is much more easily accounted for by psychologists than the Chomskyans claim. Surely our brains and bodies have evolved to optimize our language abilities. However, no one supposes that our skill on bikes indicates a 'bicycling organ.' Rather, language piggy­backs on vocal apparatuses and regions of the brain that evolved for other purposes in our animal forebears. Everett makes a case for language having arisen as a combination of three elements: 'Cognition + Culture + Communication.'

'Language: The Cultural Tool,' full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett's years with the Piraha (which he memorably described in 'Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes'), is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book. The quiet smile perfusing his writing is all the more admirable given the criticisms he has endured from linguists wedded to the He-jumping school of thought. This nonconfrontational quality has its disadvantages, though. Everett covers Chomskyan syntax largely in passing, referring to it as 'highly technical' and choosing not to dwell on its machinery, even to the extent I have here. This saps his argument of a certain force. To the uninitiated, 'technical' alone may sound innocuous and even attractive, not like something to argue against for 300 pages.

More problematic is that Everett emphasizes the 'Culture' component of his 'Cognition + Culture + Communication' formula to a point that misrepresents what human languages are. Of course culture shapes language, and Everett nicely covers many of the ways it does. Indigenous languages, for instance, often require specifying where things happen in relation to mountains and rivers, with a precision linked to the environment the language is spoken in. But most of speaking any language has nothing to do with its speakers’ take on 'culture,' be this landscape, cosmology, sex, ethics or food.

Yes, these arguments can be almost narcotically attractive, given that cultural diversity is always interesting. I once heard a linguist describe an American Indian language from California in which 'yol' means mix, and when you add a prefix and say “sh-yol” it means mixing with a spoon, 'm-yol' is mixing by heating, 's-yol' means sucking something down, and so on. When the lecturer said this was 'cultural,' the audience cooed as if being handed warm blueberry muffins.

But who among the world's humans does not rather enjoy stirring, heating and slurping? Was there really something about those Californians that made them delight in such actions in a way that people in Massachusetts, Mesopotamia and India did not? Certainly this grammatical trait, like most, is a matter of chance - some languages drift into marking things that others don't. In French, the verb sortir is used to describe leaving, sticking out your tongue and being pulled out of a hole. Are the French somehow less culturally sensitive to the differences among those things than the British, or anyone else?

Everett acknowledges that culture and language do not walk in lock step. But the essence of his text is statements like this: 'We all possess grammars of happiness - our identities and our cultural cloaks.' It would be hard to identify happiness in French's subjunctive mood endings, however, or in the fact that Mandarin has no word for 'the.' Everett finds culture the sexiest part of language, as we all probably do. Yet the He-jumping paradigm is based on the portion of language that has nothing to do with culture. And thus viable counterproposals must concentrate less on the specifics of culture than on the universalities of cognition, which increasing numbers of linguists are exploring. (Indeed it undersells the fascination of languages to paint them as merely, or mostly, mirrors of cultural distinctions, which linguists devote much less time to in their work than many books on linguistics for the general public imply.)

Still, 'Language' is a useful study of a burgeoning theory compatible with Darwinism, anthropology, psychology and philosophy - an interdisciplinary orientation the Chomskyans have largely spurned. One need not subscribe to the idea of grammar as a reflection of 'values' to enjoy Everett's perspective on the future of linguistic science.

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