How Language Began (continued)

The very title of Dan Everett’s book is a challenge to more than what, since the 1960s, has become linguistic orthodoxy. In 1866 the French Academy of Sciences forbade further discussion of the subject rightly arguing that there was insufficient evidence to make discussion anything more than wild speculation. How Language Began surveys the many subjects that now have a contribution to make to this ever-fascinating topic. Particularly interesting is the research in the field of Evolutionary Biology, which leads Everett to postulate that speech did not spring whole from the brain of homo sapiens but may well have been developed by our cousins on the evolutionary tree homo erectus.

Where Chomsky’s exploration of language is psycholinguistic, examining and attempting to describe the emergence of language in the individual human brain, Everett’s is a more generous sociolinguistic approach. He attributes the structure of language to the demands of culture and the need of the members of all societies to communicate. It is, he argues, an evolutionary process not one that is biologically programmed into all human brains (Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device). Everett is drawing, of course, on a knowledge of more than European languages. The Pirahas of the Amazon jungle, whose language Everett described, do not have tense markers because life is so precarious that they live in the present.

Most cogent (and difficult) is a large section on new knowledge about the human brain produced by the use of recent technology such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This indicates that, when people speak, many areas of the brain are shown to be active. Language, he argues, is intimately connected to other cognitive functions, including gesture. There is in the brain no one place, as was supposed in the last century, for language. Chomsky’s hypothesis is simply wrong.

It is disappointing that Everett not only does not refer to alternative sociolinguistic descriptions of language like that associated with MAK Halliday and the Australian school of linguistics, but does not seem to know about the fascinating work of Guy Deutscher, who has put forth exciting hypotheses about the emergence of grammatical features based on his study of ancient Akkadian documents. (See earlier blog.)

I see Everett has already (2016) published another book, which sounds pretty challenging – Dark Matter of the Mind: the Culturally Articulated Unconscious. I look forward to moving on to that.




Daniel Everett: How Language Began

Daniel Everett: How Language Began (2017)

This is the promised blog on the book which encapsulates the current revolution in the approach to the study of language.

When I was lucky enough to be sent off to the University of Essex to do an MA in Applied Linguistics in 1976, the core of the course was the then revolutionary approach to language study of Noam Chomsky. He had thrown down the gauntlet to the previous paradigm of Skinner and the behaviourists by proposing that language, especially the grammar, was too complex to be learned by small children and therefore had to be innate i.e. programmed into the human brain. This idea, known as Transformational Generative Grammar, has dominated the field of the scientific study of language for the last fifty years. It has got increasingly mathematic and esoteric.

I never found it useful for my own purposes, which was, first, the description of the language of literature and, secondly, the description and teaching of the abstract language of school discourse. I used Systemic Linguistics, the traditionally based analysis of language, brilliantly developed and refined by the English linguist, MAK Halliday (since developed in Australia).

When trying more recently to catch up with developments in Linguistics, I was surprised to find that research workers like Tomasello, needing a system that described varieties of language, automatically turned to Transformational Generative Grammar as the only possible descriptive tool and, not surprisingly, found it inadequate.

Disquietude with Chomskyan Linguistics has been evident in many quarters and, finally, Daniel Everett, the linguist who made his name by recounting his hands-on experience in the field of recording and analysing the language of remote tribes in the Amazon rainforest, has thrown down the gauntlet to Transformational Generative Linguistics by his 2017 book How Language Began.

I find it fascinating to behold another paradigm shift in action!



Books for the blog

I have been dilatory in keeping up with this blog but I have been reading several books which are very impressive. Above all, I have just finished a book which was what my friends and I started looking for ten years ago. We wanted to catch up with what has been happening in linguistics since we were professionally engaged with the subject. It is:

Daniel Everett: How Language Began.

To summarise it is a formidable task and I will embark on it soon. It has been worth waiting for!