The cultural tool

2 minute read

The Guardian interviews Daniel Everett about his new book, Language: The Cultural Tool. Which I will mention, has one of the worst covers ever. It’s like the publisher is trying to keep it on the shelves:

Anyway, Everett is well-known for his long-term work among the Pirah, whose distinctive language has challenged many of linguists’ assumptions about the nature of human language. Well, generative linguists’ assumptions, anyway. The interview discusses the challenge Everett’s findings pose for Chomsky’s theories of language.

So what do you think is the lesson of all this from a linguistic point of view?
The lesson is that language is not something mysterious that is outside the bounds of natural selection, or just popped into being through some mutated gene. But that language is a human invention to solve a human problem. Other creatures can't use it for the same reason they can't use a shovel: it was invented by humans, for humans and its success is judged by humans.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a longer article covering Everett’s book: “Angry Words”. In the article, we see that a theoretical debate in linguistics has turned into a full-blown fracas:

In 2007, Everett heard reports of a letter signed by Cilene Rodrigues, who is Brazilian, and who co-wrote the paper with Pesetsky and Nevins, that accuses him of racism. According to Everett, he got a call from a source informing him that Rodrigues, an honorary research fellow at University College London, had sent a letter to the organization in Brazil that grants permission for researchers to visit indigenous groups like the Pirah. He then discovered that the organization, called FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, would no longer grant him permission to visit the Pirah, whom he had known for most of his adult life and who remain the focus of his research.
He still hasn't been able to return. Rodrigues would not respond directly to questions about whether she had signed such a letter, nor would Nevins. Rodrigues forwarded an e-mail from another linguist who has worked in Brazil, which speculates that Everett was denied access to the Pirah because he did not obtain the proper permits and flouted the law, accusations Everett calls "completely false" and "amazingly nasty lies."

The Chronicle article is really juicy, with lots of linguists saying bad things about both Everett and Chomsky. It really misses the action in present-day linguistics, however, because the Piraha are only a small part of the overall challenge to Chomsky’s ideas.