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For Bentley’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Debate Over How Language Began May be at an End


For Bentley’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Debate Over How Language Began May be at an End

Dan Everett has spent a lot of time looking into the past. Now, with his latest book acting as a kind of closing argument for his side of anthropology’s “language wars,” he’s looking toward the future, shifting his inquiries from the ancient origins of language to the philosophical implications of culture and cognition. And, with his time as Bentley’s Dean of Arts and Sciences drawing to a close in June, he’s setting his sights on new endeavors.

How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention (Liveright, 2017) completes an analysis about the nature of human language that Everett’s been staging across several books, one which famously positioned him against Noam Chomsky and his followers. Whereas the Chomskyians contend there is a purely evolutionary basis for human language, a mutation leading to a “universal grammar” in the brains of Homo sapiens somewhere between 50,000-100,000 years ago, Everett’s work maintains that language is an evolutionary and a cultural acquisition, and that it can be traced back to Homo erectus, one of the ancestor species of modern humans. Language, Everett contends, may be more than a million years old, isn’t unique to Homo sapiens, and has its origins in iconography and symbols.

In Language the Cultural Tool (Vintage, 2012), Everett looked at how language is affected by culture. Along with his earlier autobiographical book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (Vintage, 2009)--which recounted his work among the Pirahã people of Brazil and his discovery that their language lacks a feature called “recursion” as required by Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar—Language the Cultural Tool positioned language as deeply influenced by cultural structures and conditions.

In The Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious (University of Chicago, 2017), Everett’s argument focused on the bonds between language, knowledge, and culture, arguing that there can be no understanding of one without accounting for the others. In Dark Matter, Everett laid the groundwork for his increasing focus on cognition, on the nature of thinking itself, and also dealt with the evolutionary aspects of language. In How Language Began, he weaves together the threads from these earlier books into a tapestry that reaches back beyond human grammar and depicts the symbol as the root of language.

Looking at the anthropological record, Everett sees that iconography and symbolism pre-date the Chomskyian contention about when human language began to appear among Homo sapiens. The ability to recognize symbols goes back 3 or 4 million years, Everett explains, citing the discovery of a naturally formed pebble shaped like a human face found preserved among a group of dissimilar pebbles in a cave in South Africa “by some ancient pre-human ancestors who agreed it ‘stood in for’ an actual face,” he says. “That’s the origin of language, language before grammar. So is drawing a circle with two horns and culturally agreeing it represents a bison,” says Everett.

All animals, explains Everett, can recognize and understand “indexes” or signs of change or condition in their environment. Our human ancestors, through culture and evolution, developed the ability to create symbolic languages, which they would have used in hunting and foraging and, eventually, in sophisticated endeavors like raft-building and seafaring. All of these activities show up in the anthropological record before spoken languages.

(View Dan Everett's TEDx San Francisco talk on How Language Began by clicking on the image above.)

Everett cites other examples in his book, including the existence of a Homo erectus city-like settlement in modern-day Israel dating back 750,000 years that would have required some means of collective action and communication to regulate what seems to have been the village-wide processing of fish and nearby grains, tool-making, and boat-building. “Collective efforts require a means of correction and instruction—‘No, don’t put that reed there, put it here.’—which requires language, even if ‘only’ a language of symbols,” Everett says. There is even evidence that Homo erectus “colonized” the island of Socotra, off modern-day Yemen, among other islands. “They were seafarers and this, perhaps more than anything else they did, required language,” Everett says.

“Grammar,” says Everett, “is in fact of secondary or tertiary importance to the development of human language,” and “grammar shows up when it needs to, culturally speaking.”

Contrary to what some of Chomsky’s defenders claim, Everett doesn’t discount the role of biological evolution in laying the groundwork for the emergence of language in modern humans and their ancestors. “Evolution provides the brain with the cognitive firepower,” he says, “and language then emerges out of specific cultures in combination with that cognitive ability.”

For many outside the field of linguistics, Everett points out, the debate between him and Chomsky about the origins of language is already more or less a settled issue, with the anthropological record fueling more and more skepticism toward the idea that language emerges with a universal human grammar among Homo sapiens. “This isn’t what bioanthropologists are studying and debating anymore, nor evolutionary biologists, nor cognitive scientists,” says Everett. Cognitive scientists in particular, says Everett, are, like he is, “increasingly interested in the ‘how’ of the brain’s functions—and what they mean for the individual and cultures—and less interested in the ‘when’ of some language structure within it.”

With the publication and publicity around How Language Began, Everett is shifting his attention for future works to the intersections between the fields of anthropology, philosophy and cognitive science. His work’s being talked about by cognitive science luminaries such as MIT’s professor of cognitive science Ted Gibson, and he’s been invited to cognitive science conferences around the world. “This will be the work I’ll be doing on sabbatical, for my next book,” says Everett, “which will lay out the philosophical grounding for my understanding of the interplay between cognition, the self, and culture; the book after that will deal with the self in society.”

Everett may have closed one chapter in his war of words with those who believe in universal grammar and language’s origins being found uniquely among Homo sapiens, but it’s clear he’s got no shortage of ideas for his next chapters.


by Helen Henrichs February 4, 2019

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