Language: The Cultural Tool

Kobo ebook | March 13, 2012

byDaniel L. Everett

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A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain—as most linguists do—but as an essential tool unique to each culture worldwide.
 
For years, the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes, existing as an innate and instinctual part of us. But linguist Daniel Everett argues that, like other tools, language was invented by humans and can be reinvented or lost. He shows how the evolution of different language forms—that is, different grammar—reflects how language is influenced by human societies and experiences, and how it expresses their great variety.
 
For example, the Amazonian Pirahã put words together in ways that violate our long-held under-standing of how language works, and Pirahã grammar expresses complex ideas very differently than English grammar does. Drawing on the Wari’ language of Brazil, Everett explains that speakers of all languages, in constructing their stories, omit things that all members of the culture understand. In addition, Everett discusses how some cultures can get by without words for numbers or counting, without verbs for “to say” or “to give,” illustrating how the very nature of what’s important in a language is culturally determined.
 
Combining anthropology, primatology, computer science, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and his own pioneering—and adventurous—research with the Amazonian Pirahã, and using insights from many different languages and cultures, Everett gives us an unprecedented elucidation of this society-defined nature of language. In doing so, he also gives us a new understanding of how we think and who we are.

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A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain—as most linguists do—but as an essential tool unique to each culture worldwide. For years, the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes, existing as an innate and instinctual part of us. But linguist Dan...

Format:Kobo ebookPublished:March 13, 2012Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307907023

ISBN - 13:9780307907028

Customer Reviews of Language: The Cultural Tool

Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Amazing insights from the Amazon In this very accessible book Dan Everett defends the hypothesis that “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). Much of the book focuses on 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 dramatically from many known languages: it has no words for colours or numbers, no recursive sentences, it is not only spoken but also hummed, sung, and whistled. Everett explains convincingly how these different modes of “speech” fit different communicative functions. The lack of numbers, colour 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 colour differences or expressing recursive thought. But, given the demands of their culture, they have shaped a specific language tool that works well for their purposes. 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. The proposal that language is a cultural innovation designed to accommodate communication is not new. It was discussed by the protagonists of Plato’s Cratylus, and more recently, Lev Vitgotsky reintroduced it. Critics have focused on two challenges. First, they argue that language cannot be a tool for communication because it is so poorly designed for this purpose. For example, ambiguity and vagueness often prevent an intended message from being conveyed. In extreme cases such unintentional miscommunication can lead to dire consequences (divorce, litigation, or war). Everett addresses this problem by arguing that it had to be expected that a tool shaped by culture and natural selection would not be ‘perfectly designed’ but merely good enough to do the job better than any other available tool. A second group of critics grants that the tool approach is plausible for a language like Pirahã because there seems to be a very good fit between what the tool needs to do and what the tool is capable of doing. But when we look at a language like English it seems there are many ‘features’ that are never or only extremely rarely needed by the vast majority of speakers and we can easily see that it would take a lot less grammar to communicate all needs that possibly could arise. We should expect frequent attempts to restrict languages artificially to make them better suitable for the communication task they need to accommodate. But the few such attempts that have been made failed and we continue to miscommunicate frequently. Last not least, even though his linguistic work on Pirahã is an important focus of Language the Cultural Tool, it would be misleading to imply it is the only interesting part. Everett covers a wide range of language related cultural topics, ranging from Greek mythology to a detailed discussion of differences in the current Hawaiian, Iroquoian, and Pirahã kinship systems. He compares human cognition to the cognitive abilities of other species and discusses similarities and important differences. This survey leads him to reject the Cartesian divide between human and non-human intelligence. Additionally, he discusses evolutionary, anatomical, genetic, and neurophysiological evidence. This leads him to accept the Cartesian proposal that intelligence is a general-purpose instrument that underwrites all human cognitive abilities including language and to reject Chomsky’s domain specific language faculty. This broad scope makes the volume an important contribution to current debates in linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. Anyone who wishes to defend the Chomskyan paradigm needs to do much more than challenge the legitimacy of his claim about Pirahã. A fill review can be found at http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/001696
Date published: 2013-01-05