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!



Comments are closed.