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Cognitive Fire: Language As a Cultural Tool…
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Cognitive Fire: Language As a Cultural Tool

by Daniel L. Everett

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Dan Everett is the linguist responsible for probably the most famous fieldwork in the discipline's recent history. The 2005 paper he wrote subsequently then set off the most acrimonious in-fighting among linguists in years.

Why? Well, it's all to do with the origin of language – a problem so notoriously intractable that the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all debates on the subject back in 1866. For a long time the best theory to explain it has been the one put forward in the 1960s by a group of ‘generative’ linguists in the US, led by a young Noam Chomsky, who came up with the idea that the capacity for language was in some sense ‘pre-programmed’ in the human brain. This, they said, accounted for the fact that children apparently learn grammatical rules far more quickly than they ‘should’ be able to, given their exposure.

But if everyone has the same hardwired language structure, how come individual languages seem so different from each other? Well, say the Chomskyans, they only look different on the surface – subconsciously, they all follow the same ‘universal grammar’, and it is therefore possible to identify grammatical concepts which are shared innately by all human languages, even Welsh. Working out the rules of this universal grammar then became the project for whole university departments, and many professorships and research grants were built on such efforts.

Not all linguists were happy about it. Many grumbled that new graduates, who in the past would have grabbed a tape recorder and disappeared to a Lao village for a few months, now all seemed to be sitting in computer labs modelling abstract rules. So Chomsky changed the field really beyond recognition.

He and his followers did make progress of a sort, though, in the face of apparent diversity. The number of supposed unique features of all human languages had been whittled down and whittled down until just one remained – recursion. Recursion refers to the way we can take one sentence and embed it inside another one. For instance, I can say ‘Miley twerked’. But I can also say, ‘You said that Miley twerked.’ Or even, ‘John dreamed that his sister thought that she knew that I told her that you said that Miley twerked.’ The ability to form constructions like this is what makes language infinite, despite having finite components, and consequently Chomsky believed that it was an innate part of all human languages.

Meanwhile, four thousand miles due south, Dan Everett was in Brazil. He originally went there as a missionary, with plans to learn the language of a remote Amazonian people called the Pirahã and convert them to Christianity. In the event, living with them caused him to lose his faith in god, and learning their language caused him to lose his faith in Chomsky. The Pirahã language turns out to be hands-down the weirdest language we know of, as least as Everett describes it. Some facts about Pirahã: it has no numbers, not even one or two. (‘Do you mean to say Pirahã mothers don't know how many children they have?’, as Dan is often asked – and yes, that is exactly what he means, although, as he explains, Pirahã mothers can tell you all their children's names, where they are, what condition they're in, and everything else about them.) The language can be whistled or hummed if necessary, rather than spoken with vowels and consonants. It has no colour terms except for ‘light’ and ‘dark’ (so red would be described as ‘like blood’, or ‘like the urucum plant’). And crucially, it has no recursion at all.

In Pirahã you cannot say, ‘John said that Miley twerked.’ You have to use separate clauses: ‘John spoke. Miley twerked.’ This may sound only mildly interesting, but the world of linguistics went ballistic. Some linguists close to Chomsky were so enraged that they embarked on what amounts to a smear campaign; Chomsky himself referred to Everett in print as ‘a charlatan’; one supporter wrote to the Brazilian authorities to accuse Everett of racism and his authorisation was duly revoked, cutting him off from the people he had lived with intermittently for twenty-five years of his life.

When things calmed down, Chomsky settled on a suitably imperial response: he said that, in fact, languages without recursion were perfectly compatible with his theory after all. All languages have the capacity to use recursion, but not all necessarily avail themselves of this capacity. (More than a few observers have concluded from exchanges like this that universal grammar is now edging towards being unfalsifiable.)

Everett's experiences in Brazil have been covered in his earlier book, the surprisingly bestselling Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (which I haven't read). In this one, he wades into the debate about what he has concluded about language more generally. The key thing is that he believes Pirahã culture imposes specific limitations on how the grammar of its language can work: language for Everett, therefore, responds directly to human society and is not something that pops out of cerebral pre-programming (except inasmuch as everything ultimately does). He does not believe that there is any kind of ‘universal grammar’, but rather that language is – as the book's title suggests – a tool, comparable to a bow and arrow. Humans learn how to talk the same way they learn how to hunt, or ride a bicycle (depending on the culture concerned); we feel no need to invoke a ‘cycling instinct’, and we should feel no need to invoke a language instinct either. He goes into a little (not enough) technical detail, but the root of his argument is very simple:

Language in every society requires years of experience and exposure to data for any child to reach adult levels of fluency. These are hallmarks of learning, not genetic determinism.

Everett's exploration of these issues is wide-ranging and the principle he's getting at is an important one. Unfortunately his prose style is a bit basic, and he seems to be pitching all this a bit below the level of his audience, with too many unnecessary references to pop music and not enough academic scaffolding. There are, for instance, no footnotes! This leaves him writing things like, ‘There are many books and scientific papers demonstrating my points above…’ with nothing to back him up. Given how much flack he's drawn from sceptics, this seems rather cavalier, and honestly the way he writes this book does not really do his ideas or his research full justice. Someone interested in the background and who can take the technicalities is still better off just reading his seminal paper from 2005.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating book for all its flaws and Everett's modesty and joy in language shines through on every page. Someone who read this and Pinker's The Language Instinct would have a pretty good understanding of the two sides of the debate which linguistics finds itself confronting. It'll be very interesting to see where it goes next. ( )
  Widsith | Nov 5, 2014 |
Everett discusses how man evolved to become capable of language and how thinking, culture, and language are related. He uses his many years of research among Amazonian peoples to show why he believes that language is an invented cultural tool rather than an instinct and/or hard-wired in our brains. Some of the discussions get rather technical and somewhat hard to follow and his writing style doesn't make this my kind of book.
  hailelib | Nov 10, 2012 |
I preferred Everett's first book, [Don't sleep there are snakes], over this one. The first gave a lot more information about the Piraha and Everett's experiences among them, while this book spent far more time arguing Everett's case that there is no such thing as a universal grammar. As a "layman linguist" -- I find linguistics fascinating but I hardly know all the terminology and history -- not every chapter was accessible to me, although many were, and clearly Everett has worked to make them so.

This book is worth reading if you are engaged and/or interested in linguistic theory. However, if you, like me, are more interested in stories about endangered languages, personal experiences learning and analyzing languages, or learning about these issues in depth without being bogged down by academic language, I'd recommend his first book, [Don't sleep there are snakes].

EDIT: Here's a link since the touchstone doesn't seem to be working: http://www.librarything.com/work/6291124 ( )
  sparemethecensor | Sep 4, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307378535, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:55 -0400)

An anthropological and psychological report contends that language is a human, societally driven, invention that can be reinvented and lost.

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