Daniel Everett: Language: The Cultural Tool

Having wrestled with Tomasello’s Constructing a Language for several weeks, my friends and I decided to choose something easier for our next book.

Tomasello’s book was difficult because it was, as the author notes, intended as a textbook which he could not manage to write. The ideas were not particularly difficult but readers like us needed more examples to understand what he was referring to. The main purpose of the book was to join the growing chorus of linguists putting forward a sociological approach to language learning in opposition to the psycholinguistic approach of Chomsky and his followers, which has dominated academic linguistics for half a century. To people like us, used to systemic linguistics, this is hardly a new idea. It still astonishes me that Tomasello (and now Everett) make no reference to Halliday’s pioneering work in the field.

Everett’s book we found difficult for the opposite reason that, although it was full of lively anecdotes and examples, we could not find any coherent argument running through it. Each chapter found an opportunity to kick Chomsky but the book as a whole did not add up to a clear programme for future research. We concluded that it was perhaps derived from a popular lecture series for American students doing foundation courses. Everett drew on his own experience as a missionary in the Amazon jungle describing the languages of the technologically primitive tribes surviving there. We should perhaps have read his first book which, it appears, describes these experiences directly.

We learned a lot of interesting things about the Piraha people and their language – for instance, it has no words for number. Everett argues that human language is not constructed according to an innate programme in the human genome, but is constantly changing in response to the social demands made on it. If the Piraha have a need for number then their language will develop an appropriate system.

The last chapter romantically laments the loss of languages of groups of people who have died out or merged with other dominant groups. The loss of any human language is a loss for the whole of humanity, he argues. Maybe this is the theme of the book, not clearly spelt out until the end.

We are hoping for an easier read from our next book: Guy Deutscher: The Unfolding of Language.


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