Language: The Cultural Tool

I’ve been reading Daniel Everett’s recent book, Language: The Cultural Tool, and it’s been a fun read (a bit of a slog at times, but overall entertaining).

If you’re not aware of Everett, he’s the guy who has been doing field research on an Amazonian tribe (the Pirahã) in Brazil and his findings on this relatively unique language has caused some controversy in the world of linguistics, or at least has stirred things up.

According to Everett (and other independently verified sources he is quick to note) Pirahã does not have numbers, does not have basic color terms, and perhaps most strangely, doesn’t have recursion, a feature that was declared by Chomsky and others to be the defining feature that separates human language from animal communication.  (You can read more about what recursion is here)

Right off the bat, Everett puts forth the following formula to describe his perspective on understanding human language:

“Cognition + Culture + Communication = Language.  This means that each normal human being has a brain, belongs to a community with values, and needs to communicate, and the confluence of these states results in language. (Everett, p. 35)

John Mcwhorter, the Columbia University professor turned pop-linguist wrote a review on Everett’s book in the NYTimes where he argues that Everett puts a bit too much emphasis on the “culture” part, sacrificing the other variables in his formula:

“Everett finds culture the sexiest part of language, as we all probably do. Yet the He-jumping (generative grammar or Chomskian linguistics) 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.)” (My emphasis)

Mchworter finds the key to understanding human language in understanding human cognition, not culture, which he implies is more of a by-product to the universality of human cognition:

“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.”

Everett and Chomsky havin’ at it

Taking a step back, Mchworter sees Everett’s arguments falling right into that ol’ “nature vs. nurture” debate on human language.  And much of Everett’s book is devoted to showing why language is not ‘innate’ but rather a ‘cultural’ tool that human beings were lucky enough to hit upon. Everett argues that we need to take linguistic diversity more seriously as a reflection of what happens when culture influences language, rather than seeing diversity as more or a less an insignificant illusion of an underlying common grammar (This is where Chomsky’s martian scientist argument usually comes in).

“Why do languages have so many different features in common if these features are not part of the genome?  And if we can answer this, an equally difficult question arises.  How dissimilar can one language be from another?” (Everett, p. 7)

There are a few moments in Everett’s book where he almost manages to rise above this tired dichotomy at times,

“Our brains are up to this learning task because, through thousands of years of human evolution and the history of language, language and humans have grown to fit one another.” (Everett, p. 35)

But for the most part, Everett’s argument basically seems to be an exercise in providing evidence (fascinating evidence though it is) for emphasizing nurture over nature.

I should admit that I am very sympathetic to Everett’s perspective on how language works and why it is the way it is, more so than Mcwhorter seems to be.  But to truly begin understanding human language, I think we need to shift away from explaining language as a product of either nature (cognition) or nurture (culture) and more towards understanding, as Everett so concisely puts it, how and why “language and humans have grown to fit one another.”

“Language takes us through our human world. It is the theme of myths, philosophy, literature and science. In the vast majority of the world’s literatures, both oral and written, humans have tried to explain the origin of their tools, abilities, and circumstances. In our early literary history, we used myths. Today we use science. Science is usually better than myths at explaining. But the myths arguably capture the grandeur of their subject better than science, because of the broad sweep of human emotions they portray, and the depth of their connection to the cultures from which they come.” (Everett, p. 9)

The Featured image is….

a human being using a ‘cultural tool’ to surf it up at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, California
Steamer Lane

One response to “Language: The Cultural Tool

  1. Pingback: intercultural communication in the new era | Leaky Grammar·

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