Dan Everett: Dark Matter of the Mind (2016

This I found a hard book, as I do not automatically recall the theories of every Western philosopher, linguist, anthropologist and psychologist who has ever lived! Dan Everett relates his sociolinguistic explanation of the structure of language to its derivation from not only the whole history of Western thought but also refers to parallels in Buddhist explanations of human behaviour. His bibliography includes, moreover, a work by Carl Rogers, who founded a school of counselling based on a recognition of the emotional nature of human beings. I happen to be aware of this work as my brother has counselled damaged and difficult teenagers very successfully using this school of counselling.

However, in spite of the overload of philosophy, the new material in this book is, as far as I know, original and very convincing. The title encapsulates the metaphor used for constructing this theory. Astro-physicists tell us that the universe is made up largely of “dark matter” which is (at present at least) inaccessible to human senses and gadgetry. (Presumably, mathematics leads them to believe in its physical presence.) Everett argues that the human mind is similarly largely made up of patterns of behaviour and ideas which we have acquired from the people we live amongst and of which we are normally unaware. Some of this can be accessed through introspection and therapy, and some is forever ineffable. For instance, when we can ride a bike, we forget the sequence of skills which we learned when we started and take it for granted. Basic attitudes on such matters as religion, gender roles, race and political allegiance also drop into the cavern of the unconscious but they make us what we are.

Very telling is the description of his experience as a Christian missionary among various remote tribes of Amerindians in the Amazon particularly the Piraha. Everett flushes out the largely unconscious beliefs of the would-be converters and the convertees and it is all too clear that the incompatibility between the two world views makes it impossible to reconcile them. My life has been full of arguments which, I now comprehend, got nowhere because of basically incompatible “dark matter” (e.g. Marxism and Catholicism, or people who know something of the former Soviet Union and those who know nothing.) In the chapter Dark Matter and Hermeneutics Everett flushes out the implicit knowledge which underlies all human speech and writing through the close examination of texts.

What I found surprising is that Everett’s list of the differences between the Piraha and Portuguese languages includes an absence of phatic communication in the former. I hope he will write more about this at some point. It seems that mothers do not talk baby talk to their infants, which is amazing to us. However, they do use “hum speech” in communicating with babies, so this may be an equivalent. Fascinating is his detailed description of the way grammar and phonology are used for different purposes in the two languages. I met this myself when I was living in Bulgaria and trying to learn the language. There is in Bulgarian a whole group of verb forms which look like the perfect tense in English. Many years after I ran down a grammar of Bulgarian which explained that they in fact indicate that the authenticity of the information is not guaranteed. This is also an important feature of Piraha grammar.

This book for me opens a new chapter in the expansion of understanding about language. I just wish I were a young linguist starting on a career of research!