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Language: The Cultural Tool Paperback – March 22, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"'A remarkable book. It is written with an immediacy even a Piraha might envy, and its conjunction of physical and intellectual adventure is irresistible' John Carey, Sunday Times on Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (Profile)"

About the Author

Daniel Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts. Previously, he was Chair of the department of languages, literatures and cultures at Illinois State University. He is the author of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (Profile).
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books Ltd (March 22, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781846682674
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846682674
  • ASIN: 1846682673
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,365,993 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dan Everett (1951) was born in Holtville, California. He has worked in the Amazon jungles of Brazil for over 30 years, among more than one dozen different tribal groups. He is best-known for his long-term work on the Pirahã language. He has published more than 90 articles and six books on linguistic theory and the description of endangered Amazonian languages. His most recent book, Don't sleep, there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle (Pantheon), was selected by National Public Radio as one of the best books of 2009 in the US, by Blackwell's bookstores as one of the best of 2009 in the UK , and was an 'editor's choice' of the London Sunday Times. It was also a featured BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. His book, Language: The cultural tool (Pantheon), was a New York Times Editor's Choice .

A documentary of his life and work, The Grammar of Happiness, was released worldwide in 2012. It is available through the Smithsonian Channel in the USA. The Grammar of Happiness has now won first prize for Human Sciences at the Jackson Hole Film Festival. It won the Young Europeans Jury Award at the FIPA Film Festival in Biarritz, France. It is a finalist for best science film of 2012 at the Pariscience Film Festival.

A screenplay based on Don't sleep, There are Snakes is in progress, commissioned from two production companies, for a feature film. Everett is currently Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Geoff Bond on May 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By KmVictorian VINE VOICE on March 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.)
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Seoigheach on May 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
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.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By GeooeG on October 29, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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