Tuesday, April 10, 2012

JOHN McWHORTER: ‘Language: The Cultural Tool,’ by Daniel L. Everett

Daniel L. Everett believes languages are culturally constructed, vehicles of culture, a position that challenges Noam Chomsky's universal grammar theory, an approach that has been dominant for the last 40+ years (despite a relative lack of evidence for any kind of a "genetic" language capability). Everett's new book, in which he lays out his own model, is Language: The Cultural Tool.

Chomsky's model assumes a kind of innate grammar module in the brain, that we are born with the ability to develop and use language. Everett disagrees, as the blurb for his book makes clear:
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.
Linguist John McWhorter reviews Everett's new book for the New York Times.

Repeat After Me: ‘Language: The Cultural Tool,’ by Daniel L. Everett

Illustration by Triboro Design


Published: April 6, 2012

Few linguists doubt that natural selection has played a part in humans’ linguistic ability. We all speak. Our vocal tract is honed to produce the sonic richness and precision of speech. Animals couldn’t speak even if they wanted to. In the 1960s, however, Noam Chomsky pushed the envelope with a radical proposal: a theory that humans have an innate mental apparatus specifically devoted to assembling words into sentences — an inborn “language organ.”

By Daniel L. Everett
Illustrated. 351 pp. Pantheon Books. $27.95.


The literature on this, as intriguing as it may sound, would leave most readers alternately puzzled and drowsy. The idea is that a sentence starts in an almost unrecognizably abstract state, as a bare, treelike structure quite different from the ones some will recall from schoolroom diagraming. To say “He rolled the ball down the hill,” for example, we hang “He” from the tree and then hang a separate sentence, “The ball rolled down the hill,” a little ways over. Then “rolled” jumps left over “the ball” and lands on a hitherto empty branch. That branch’s job is to jolt a verb like “rolled” into meaning the action of “He” rather than the action of the ball. O.K. Then, for reasons even more occult, “He” does its own leftward jump, abandoning the branch where it started — although this leaves no pause after “He” when we utter the sentence.
All that to get a ball down a hill, and I left out some tricky bits. These phantom leaps make sense only with ingrown justifications that, by the year, have less and less to do with developments in psychology, biology or genetics. Yet adherents to Chomsky’s theory can be pitilessly dismissive of detractors as just not up for serious abstraction.
It is the Chomskyan take on language that Daniel L. Everett, a linguist best known for his work in the Amazon among the Pirahã, challenges in “Language: The Cultural Tool.” Chomsky argues that language is too complex, and mastered by children too quickly, for it to be a learned skill like riding a bicycle. There must be a genetic program for learning language, which as a pan-human trait should be applicable to any language a child hears. Languages seem so vastly different from one another, but for Chomskyans this is a mere matter of word shapes; in terms of how we put the words together, languages are all minor variations on a single universal grammar — the one underlying that jumping-He-on-the-tree phenomenon.
Fiddle with some switches and English’s grammar becomes Japanese’s. Fiddle again and you get Mohawk, in which you say “He fish-likes” instead of “He likes fish.” Babies just have to figure out which switches the language they’re learning requires them to fiddle with.
Yet after almost 50 years, serious evidence for a universal grammar remains elusive. Everett aptly quotes the psycholinguist Michael Tomasello’s judgment — “Universal grammar is dead” — and adds: “It was a good idea. It didn’t pan out.”
How humans learn language is much more easily accounted for by psychologists than the Chomskyans claim. Surely our brains and bodies have evolved to optimize our language abilities. However, no one supposes that our skill on bikes indicates a “bicycling organ.” Rather, language piggy­backs on vocal apparatuses and regions of the brain that evolved for other purposes in our animal forebears. Everett makes a case for language having arisen as a combination of three elements: “Cognition + Culture + Communication.”
“Language: The Cultural Tool,” full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett’s years with the Pirahã (which he memorably described in “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes”), is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book. The quiet smile perfusing his writing is all the more admirable given the criticisms he has endured from linguists wedded to the He-jumping school of thought. This nonconfrontational quality has its disadvantages, though. Everett covers Chomskyan syntax largely in passing, referring to it as “highly technical” and choosing not to dwell on its machinery, even to the extent I have here. This saps his argument of a certain force. To the uninitiated, “technical” alone may sound innocuous and even attractive, not like something to argue against for 300 pages.
More problematic is that Everett emphasizes the “Culture” component of his “Cognition + Culture + Communication” formula to a point that misrepresents what human languages are. Of course culture shapes language, and Everett nicely covers many of the ways it does. Indigenous languages, for instance, often require specifying where things happen in relation to mountains and rivers, with a precision linked to the environment the language is spoken in. But most of speaking any language has nothing to do with its speakers’ take on “culture,” be this landscape, cosmology, sex, ethics or food.
Yes, these arguments can be almost narcotically attractive, given that cultural diversity is always interesting. I once heard a linguist describe an American Indian language from California in which “yol” means mix, and when you add a prefix and say “sh-yol” it means mixing with a spoon, “m-yol” is mixing by heating, “s-yol” means sucking something down, and so on. When the lecturer said this was “cultural,” the audience cooed as if being handed warm blueberry muffins.
But who among the world’s humans does not rather enjoy stirring, heating and slurping? Was there really something about those Californians that made them delight in such actions in a way that people in Massachusetts, Mesopotamia and India did not? Certainly this grammatical trait, like most, is a matter of chance — some languages drift into marking things that others don’t. In French, the verb sortir is used to describe leaving, sticking out your tongue and being pulled out of a hole. Are the French somehow less culturally sensitive to the differences among those things than the British, or anyone else?
Everett acknowledges that culture and language do not walk in lock step. But the essence of his text is statements like this: “We all possess grammars of happiness — our identities and our cultural cloaks.” It would be hard to identify happiness in French’s subjunctive mood endings, however, or in the fact that Mandarin has no word for “the.” Everett finds culture the sexiest part of language, as we all probably do. Yet the He-jumping paradigm is based on the portion of language that has nothing to do with culture. And thus viable counterproposals must concentrate less on the specifics of culture than on the universalities of cognition, which increasing numbers of linguists are exploring. (Indeed it undersells the fascination of languages to paint them as merely, or mostly, mirrors of cultural distinctions, which linguists devote much less time to in their work than many books on linguistics for the general public imply.)
Still, “Language” is a useful study of a burgeoning theory compatible with Darwinism, anthropology, psychology and philosophy — an interdisciplinary orientation the Chomskyans have largely spurned. One need not subscribe to the idea of grammar as a reflection of “values” to enjoy Everett’s perspective on the future of linguistic science.

~ John McWhorter teaches linguistics, Western civilization and American studies at Columbia University. His latest book is “What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be).”

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