26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the Amazon Jungle: An Intriguing Riposte to Universal Grammar
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...
Published on May 23, 2012 by Geoff Bond
4 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars scientistic view
Although this book has received a good deal of praise, it is valuable only from a highly limited, science-dominated point of view that removes or conceals the utter mystery that is language, viewing it instead as a "tool" -- a gross though ubiquitous, standard mainstream oversimplification. A major telling symptom is its mundane, simplistic treatment of the infant's...
Published 15 months ago by Louis Berger
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From the Amazon Jungle: An Intriguing Riposte to Universal Grammar,
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 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."
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language takes many paths according to need,
Daniel Everett is an authority on languages of the Amazon. In his book, "Language: The Cultural Tool," he uses this expertise to challenge the theories of famed language guru Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky maintains that children are born with a kind of universal language intuition. All of humanity, Chomsky would say, is therefore "hard-wired" to do language in certain definite ways.
Dr. Everett, who lived many years with the Pirahã tribe of Brazil, replies that human expression is not inherently pre-ordered. Rather, language is a unique cultural "tool," originated and modified by the culture in which it occurs.
The author cites varied modes of Pirahã speech--whistling, humming, and tonal devices--all of which are facets of the tribe's language. The Pirahã also have no words for numbers, and only minimal ways of describing color. Everett believes this is because the Pirahã culture perceives no need of expressing math or color differences. Therefore the tribe has devised its own unusual techniques of communication.
If you're intrigued by the many ways human beings can communicate, you'll like this book. (I read it in the Kindle version.)
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good, refreshing, non-technical book from an expert,
The "universal grammar" or "bioprogram" hypothesis in linguistics is plausible but not sufficiently critically examined. One finds a short discussion in most textbooks, leading to the "obvious" conclusion, and one fears that the beginning student is simultaneously indoctrinated into the Chomskyan world and inoculated against the alternative point of view. "Language: The Cultural Tool" is an accurate title for Mr. Everett's extended meditation on the aspects of this problem. The author, an experienced field linguist/anthropologist, poses the alternative point of view without pressing doctrinaire conclusions on his readers.
This book is recommended for those with a passing interest in the theoretical question of the origin or evolution of language as well as for more technically trained readers, although I concede that the latter may find too many unnecessary explanations or metaphors have been included to make the ideas accessible to the lowest common denominator of reader. Despite the impression of unnecessary length, Mr. Everett has combined humility and subtlety in advancing the possibility of an alternative hypothesis, and peppered his essay with many concrete examples, especially from his personal experience in Amazonian languages.
As persuasive as the arguments in favor of Chomskyan nativism may be, there really is no scientific evidence that conclusively establishes it. Perhaps there cannot be for the foreseeable future. But Mr. Everett does an admirable job of sketching how it might be that language is not spawned by language-specific genetic hardware but rather caused by more general cognitive and social structures.
If you are interested in these topics, make sure also to read Derek Bickerton's excellent forays into the subject.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting argument against Chomsky's nativist universal grammers,
This review is from: Language: The Cultural Tool (Kindle Edition)
The book lays out a well reasoned argument against Chomsky's nativist universal grammars based on the authors extensive study of the languages of primitive populations in South America. The book explores the claims of anatomical features of the brain that would have "housed" a language organ. It discusses the linguistic features that are claimed to be universal, but in fact are shown to be missing in some of the languages studied by the author. The book written to a more general audience and is a pleasant read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language and culture are etangled,
I read this book after reading Daniel L. Everett book "Don't sleep there are sneaks" about his experience with the Pirañas on the Amaziona Jungle. On that book an on this onw more enforcebly he points out that culture enforces the language of every community. It's a great thesis about how reality is build by the culture or by the language, better, by the knotty relation between those two concepts, languagem and culture.
If you are interested in that matter you should read it!
I hope you enjoy
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating facts supporting a fascinating hypothesis,
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). A full review can be found on Lingbuzz [ling-dot-auf-dot-net/lingbuzz/001696] under the title "Beyond the Piraha Controversy"
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hello UG, this is reality speaking - Piraha.,
A brilliantly written exposition of one of the discipline's most ambitious projects - an anthropological linguistic account of an amazing language, which, according to the claims made by the essentializing ideology of generativism, suffices as falsification of an outdated theory. In place of the old theory comes a rich, multifaceted, emergent account of language as it really is - a product of the world speakers live in, a miracle of cognitive adaptability. Linguistics has reached a tipping point. To understand language, it is time to stop navel-gazing, and look outwards into the world. thank you Daniel Everett for this timely book.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars,
Great book, timely delivery.
4 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars scientistic view,
Although this book has received a good deal of praise, it is valuable only from a highly limited, science-dominated point of view that removes or conceals the utter mystery that is language, viewing it instead as a "tool" -- a gross though ubiquitous, standard mainstream oversimplification. A major telling symptom is its mundane, simplistic treatment of the infant's acquisition of its first language. For rare adequate treatments of this critical issue (according to a few key thinkers, such as Charles Taylor and Ludwig Wittgenstein) that do it justice, see the relevant chapters in Philosophical Papers: Volume 1, Human Agency and Language (Philosophical Papers (Cambridge)), and in Philosophical Arguments (both by Charles Taylor); Marie McGinn's discussion of Wittgenstein's objection to the so-called Augustinian conception of language learning Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations (Routledge Philosophy GuideBooks); also Language and the Ineffable: A Developmental Perspective and Its Applications. The usual explanations offering some mixture of genetics and learning theory simply won't do.
Having said all that, still, much depends on what one is looking for. I suppose if one wants a mainstream exposition of language theory, this book will do.
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Cognitive Fire by Daniel L. Everett (Paperback)
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