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Fluent in Controversy
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
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The cover of a recent Chronicle Review sums up academic reaction to a new book by linguist Dan Everett. Rendered in caricature, Bentley’s dean of arts and sciences exchanges scowls with the man who has dominated the field for some 50 years.
“Angry Words,” reads the headline. “Is Noam Chomsky’s reign over linguistics at an end?”
Everett chuckles at the illustration but answers the question with a serious “yes.”
His assertion springs from decades studying the language spoken by the Pirahã (Pee-da-HAHN) people of the Amazon rain forest. The work convinced Everett that many of Chomsky’s central tenets about the nature of language are, well, wrong. In Language: The Cultural Tool, he makes the case for a different theoretical framework.
Nature vs. Nurture
Everett’s research has rocked world of linguistics. The controversy turns on Chomsky’s widely accepted theory of a “universal grammar,” which considers language to be innate among humans, as inborn as any instinct to a species. Living for many years among the remote, 400-member Pirahã tribe led Everett to a different conclusion. He came to see language as an artifact, that is, a “cultural tool” invented by people to meet a common need: effective and efficient communication.
“Language solves the human problem of building strong communities,” says Everett, who wrote about the Piraha in an earlier book, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes. “Language isn’t in our genes; it’s in a certain cognitive flexibility that responds to our most basic needs.”
His theories center on a complex interplay of intellect, the human social instinct, and this need to communicate. In short: Cognition + Culture + Communication = Language.
The dean knew his work would cause a firestorm. Indeed, Chomsky’s fervent supporters, and the longtime MIT professor himself, have gone on the attack. Some insinuate that Everett’s research and motivations are less about academic rigor than about self-promotion.
Everett dismisses charge.
“I was a follower of Chomsky,” he says of the time before his observations among the Pirahã seemed to defy the older linguist’s most central ideas. “There was an accumulation of things I couldn’t explain, for years. I worked on over 20 different Amazonian languages, and I knew there was something different about Pirahã.”
Notably, according to Everett, the Pirahã language lacks “recursion.” That is, their sentences do not contain multiple phrases and clauses – a grammatical structure that Chomsky once deemed an essential component of human language.
Language: The Cultural Tool is based on science but written for non-scientists. Everett uses anecdote and metaphor to make a complex subject accessible, even entertaining. The intent is to both engage public discourse and spur new thinking among experts in the fields he loves.
“My hope is that linguists will begin to see language in more of a cultural context and anthropologists will start to look at culture in terms of linguistic effects,” he says. “The average person who reads this book will understand themselves better and have an alternative to the idea that language is just in the genes somehow.
“People need to understand what makes us human, and there’s nothing that makes us human more than our language.”