The Cultural Tool
By Daniel L. Everett
Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780307378538, 368pp.
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
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A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain—as most linguists do—but as an essential tool unique to each culture worldwide.
For years, the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes, existing as an innate and instinctual part of us. But linguist Daniel Everett argues that, like other tools, language was invented by humans and can be reinvented or lost. He shows how the evolution of different language forms—that is, different grammar—reflects how language is influenced by human societies and experiences, and how it expresses their great variety.
For example, the Amazonian Pirahã put words together in ways that violate our long-held under-standing of how language works, and Pirahã grammar expresses complex ideas very differently than English grammar does. Drawing on the Wari’ language of Brazil, Everett explains that speakers of all languages, in constructing their stories, omit things that all members of the culture understand. In addition, Everett discusses how some cultures can get by without words for numbers or counting, without verbs for “to say” or “to give,” illustrating how the very nature of what’s important in a language is culturally determined.
Combining anthropology, primatology, computer science, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and his own pioneering—and adventurous—research with the Amazonian Pirahã, and using insights from many different languages and cultures, Everett gives us an unprecedented elucidation of this society-defined nature of language. In doing so, he also gives us a new understanding of how we think and who we are.
“Language: The Cultural Tool, full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett’s years with the Pirahã . . . is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book. . . . A useful study of a burgeoning theory compatible with Darwinism, anthropology, psychology and philosophy—an interdisciplinary orientation the Chomskyans have largely spurned.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious. . . . [Everett] doesn’t shy from making big claims.”
—The New York Times
“[Language] deserves a serious reading.”
“[Everett’s book] is revelatory. There is nothing about humans that is quite as astonishing as language.”
—The Guardian (London)
“Everett has . . . produced a book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. This is an intellectual cri de Coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity. After reading it, you will—should—care as much about disappearing languages as you do about the clubbed seal or the harpooned whale. . . . A very rich but also very readable book. Everett is not the first to challenge the reign of Chomsky, but he is the most accessible, and, thanks to his years in Amazonia, the most-intimately informed.”
—The Sunday Times (London)
“A must-read for anyone having an interest in knowing what makes us human. . . . Everett resets the research agenda for linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience towards finding out how our biological endowment and culture interact, to form and shape the rich diversity apparent as we view the human condition.”
—Philip Lieberman, Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, Professor of Anthropology, Brown University
“Everett mounts an impassioned argument that language has adaptively emerged as our species’ ‘tool’ for achieving social collectivity via discourse. He sharply questions today’s doctrinal wisdom in the field of linguistics by giving it a pendulum-push back in the direction of anthropology, of Humboldtian cosmography, and of humanity’s evolved socio-cognitive diversity.”
—Michael Silverstein, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, of Linguistics, and of Psychology, University of Chicago
“A radical reassessment of the origin and evolution of language. . . . The book eloquently reminds us that the incredible diversity of languages on this planet reflect different ways of thinking and being in the world—a phenomenon that might sadly be on the verge of extinction.”
—Robert Greene, author of The 50th Law and The Descent of Power
“For the past half-century, linguistic theory has been dominated by the idea that language is a biologically determined instinct. Daniel Everett argues instead that language is a cultural tool, no different in principle from the physical tools that people have invented in adapting to different physical and cultural environments. The sheer diversity of the world’s 7,000 or so languages strongly challenges any notion of a universal grammar, and suggests instead that languages are the product of general human intelligence, adaptability, and creativity. Everett draws on a wide knowledge of diverse languages and cultures, a deep knowledge of the history of ideas, and above all on his experiences in living among the remote Pirahã people in the Amazon. This is the most recent and most eloquent account of a remarkable sea change that is taking place in our understanding of the nature of human language.”
—Michael Corballis, author of The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization, and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland
“This is exciting work. I learned a tremendous amount from it, as will anyone who is concerned with the nature of language and of mind.”
—Robert Brandom, University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
“Margaret Mead among the Samoans; Franz Boas among the Inuit; Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders; Claude Lévi-Strauss among the Bororo and Guaycuru; Ruth Benedict among the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutls—but to my mind Daniel Everett has now outdone them all. Language: The Cultural Tool, coming upon the heels of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, establishes his thirty years with the Pirahã deep in the Amazon as the most important—and provocative—anthropological field work ever undertaken.”
—Tom Wolfe, author of Hooking Up
“Controversial and leavened with wit, this is the book on language I have been waiting for. A masterpiece, and then some.”
—Patricia S. Churchland, professor emerita of philosophy, University of California, San Diego