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Russian Academy of Sciences Devotes Special Session to Bentley Linguist Daniel Everett’s Work

Academics

Russian Academy of Sciences Devotes Special Session to Bentley Linguist Daniel Everett’s Work

The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Linguistics held a special session on the scholarship of Bentley’s Dean of Arts and Sciences and Interim Co-Provost, Daniel K. Everett, focusing on the wide-ranging impact of his work among the Pirahã people of central Brazil.

The five-hour roundtable discussion in Moscow in February examined Everett’s seminal and controversial work, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. Scholars from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Irkutsk and elsewhere in Russia participated in a wide-ranging discussion of Everett’s work, representing fields including linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science and philosophy. Everett’s book has been translated into Russian and has become popular in Russia, prompting this session.

Chaired by Vladimir Alpatov, the director of the institute, the discussion examined why Everett’s book, first published in 2008, has generated such impassioned responses. The scholars evaluated how one of Everett’s central findings about the Pirahã language has upended famed linguist Noam Chomsky’s claims about “universal grammar.” Whereas Chomsky and his followers believe that all human languages contain “recursion,” or the potential for expressing endless sentences within sentences, Everett found that the Pirahã do not seem to use recursion at all, thus challenging the idea of “universal” language structures across cultures. (You can read more about the dispute between Chomsky and Everett, from Everett’s own perspective, here.)

Other topics discussed at the special session were the impact of Everett’s work on cultural linguistics, minimalism in language and speech, recursion and genetics, and language and perception. In one section, Everett was called “the Benjamin Whorf of the 21st Century;” Whorf’s concepts of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, set the terms of debate in the field for much of the first half of the 20th Century. Whorf’s ideas have recently resurged into popular understanding via the 2016 film Arrival. Linguistic relativity theory contends that the structures of a language shape its speakers’ worldview and cognition. Everett has made similar observations in works like his recent book Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious.

A selection of papers from the roundtable will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Russian Journal of Cognitive Science, and a video of the proceedings is already online (in Russian). Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes has also been turned into a play, produced last year in London by the theater group Simple8 at the Park Theatre.

Everett is embarking on a speaking tour of Slovakia. He’ll also soon be appearing on BBC Radio’s “The Why Factor” and discussing diversity in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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