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Language: The Cultural Tool Hardcover – March 13, 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Language: The Cultural Tool, full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett’s years with the Pirahã . . . 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
 
“Ambitious. . . . [Everett] doesn’t shy from making big claims.”
The New York Times

“[Language] deserves a serious reading.”
The Economist
 
“[Everett’s book] is revelatory. There is nothing about humans that is quite as astonishing as language.”
The Guardian (London)
 
“Everett has . . . produced 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. . . . 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.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“A must-read for anyone having an interest in knowing what makes us human. . . .  Everett resets the research agenda for linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience towards finding out how our biological endowment and culture interact, to form and shape the rich diversity apparent as we view the human condition.”
—Philip Lieberman, Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, Professor of Anthropology, Brown University
 
“Everett mounts an impassioned argument that language has adaptively emerged as our species’ ‘tool’ for achieving social collectivity via discourse. He sharply questions today’s doctrinal wisdom in the field of linguistics by giving it a pendulum-push back in the direction of anthropology, of Humboldtian cosmography, and of humanity’s evolved socio-cognitive diversity.”
—Michael Silverstein, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, of Linguistics, and of Psychology, University of Chicago
 
“A radical reassessment of the origin and evolution of language. . . . The book eloquently reminds us that the incredible diversity of languages on this planet reflect different ways of thinking and being in the world—a phenomenon that might sadly be on the verge of extinction.”
—Robert Greene, author of The 50th Law and The Descent of Power
 
“For the past half-century, linguistic theory has been dominated by the idea that language is a biologically determined instinct. Daniel Everett argues instead that language is a cultural tool, no different in principle from the physical tools that people have invented in adapting to different physical and cultural environments. The sheer diversity of the world’s 7,000 or so languages strongly challenges any notion of a universal grammar, and suggests instead that languages are the product of general human intelligence, adaptability, and creativity. Everett draws on a wide knowledge of diverse languages and cultures, a deep knowledge of the history of ideas, and above all on his experiences in living among the remote Pirahã people in the Amazon. This is the most recent and most eloquent account of a remarkable sea change that is taking place in our understanding of the nature of human language.”
—Michael Corballis, author of The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization, and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland
 
“This is exciting work.  I learned a tremendous amount from it, as will anyone who is concerned with the nature of language and of mind.”
—Robert Brandom, University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
 
“Margaret Mead among the Samoans; Franz Boas among the Inuit; Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders; Claude Lévi-Strauss among the Bororo and Guaycuru; Ruth Benedict among the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutls—but to my mind Daniel Everett has now outdone them all. Language: The Cultural Tool, coming upon the heels of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, establishes his thirty years with the Pirahã deep in the Amazon as the most important—and provocative—anthropological field work ever undertaken.”
—Tom Wolfe, author of Hooking Up

“Controversial and leavened with wit, this is the book on language I have been waiting for. A masterpiece, and then some.”
Patricia S. Churchland, professor emerita of philosophy, University of California, San Diego

About the Author

Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University. He has held appointments in linguistics and/or anthropology at the University of Campinas, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Manchester, and Illinois State University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (March 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378535
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378538
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #214,571 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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