Thursday, March 29, 2012


Guardian | Daniel Everett is a linguist who is best known for his studies of the language of the Pirahã people of the Amazon basin. His new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, explores his theory that language isn't innate but a tool developed by humans to solve problems.

Can you give me a very quick summary of the essential claim of this book?

There are two claims, the first is that universal grammar doesn't seem to work, there doesn't seem to be much evidence for that. And what can we put in its place? A complex interplay of factors, of which culture, the values human beings share, plays a major role in structuring the way that we talk and the things that we talk about.

From your experience in the Amazon, and generally, what is it that makes language possible?

Language is possible due to a number of cognitive and physical characteristics that are unique to humans but none of which that are unique to language. Coming together they make language possible. But the fundamental building block of language is community. Humans are a social species more than any other, and in order to build a community, which for some reason humans have to do in order to live, we have to solve the communication problem. Language is the tool that was invented to solve that problem.

You studied the Pirahã community in the central Amazon. Is there something especially interesting about Pirahã language?

I was assigned there to translate the Bible for them because no one could figure out the language – it's not related to any other known living language. All languages have unique characteristics, but the Pirahã just seems to have so many unique characteristics. Things that we didn't expect. I mean the absence of numbers, the absence of counting and colours, the absence of creation myths, and the refusal to talk about the distant past or the distant future. A number of things like this, including, the special characteristic of recursion, the ability to keep a process going in the syntax forever. This constellation of features really cried out for an explanation and, it took me about 20 years to realise that there might be a unifying explanation for all of these things. My experience with the Pirahã was absolutely fundamental in shaping my ideas about human language.


Temple3 said...

I bet these folks got the "Dummy Up Genocide Memo" that was passed around. The first chapter says something about "Mum's the word when you see a guy with a little black book. Act like you know NOTHING...and they'll go away, but if you talk to them, your children will fall for the stories in their book, they'll take your land and make you work for them in a sweat shop. Shhhhh!!! Remember...act dumber than a box of rocks!!"

CNu said...

Don't you love how he chalks up the following occurrence  to a Piraha "problem with alcohol"?I woke up about midnight and heard them saying that a Brazilian trader
had given them whisky and a new shotgun to kill my family. They were
saying: "I'm not afraid I will kill the American." So I got up and I
went through the jungle to where they were talking. I knew they had all
been drinking, so I just walked in and said: "Hello, how are you doing?"
and started grabbing up the bows and arrows and the shotgun. By the
time they realised what was going on I had everything in my arms and was
back in my house. And so they came, and they were fighting with one
another and, as I was walking back to my house I heard a voice to my
side from the jungle say: "I'm going to kill you right now" and it was a
Piraha man and I thought I was going get either an arrow or a shotgun
blast to the face when I turned around, but he was just standing there
unarmed. And just drunk. And so I didn't get killed. But the next day
they all apologised, and they said: "Alcohol does funny things with our
head" and I said: "It does with everybody's heads, but I don't want this
around my family, we can leave or you can not do this again." So they
said: "OK, we promise not to do it again." But they did!