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!









Afterthoughts on BSL

I am lucky enough to live almost next door to the Midlands Cultural Centre for the Deaf (which is open to the public for excellent lunches and snacks). The deaf and hearing people who run the centre are very welcoming and try to teach us bits of Sign. Contrary to what I was arguing in my last blog, most of the signs we try to learn are iconic (i.e. mimic the thing depicted) e.g. sausage roll, fish and chips. (Most of our vocabulary is food items.)

It is nice to see how relaxed and happy are the fluent Sign users – unlike our odd words, BSL is clearly a complex and arbitrary system, like any other language.

However, I sometimes watch the television programmes accompanied by an interpreter in BSL. It seems to me that they use a variety of semiotic systems, including lip-reading and finger spelling as well as BSL. I’d like to follow this up sometime.





I am disturbed to find that blogs that I thought I had put up in the last few months seem to have disappeared. I shall have to consult my webmaster!

My friends and I have been pursuing our linguistic interests by working through two books:

An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson

Exploring Health Communication: Kevin Harvey and Nelya Koteyko

I thought I had reported some of the more interesting things we had learned on my blog, but apparently not.

It has been fascinating to see how linguistic insights can sharpen the work of two of the oldest professions – law and medicine. We have now moved on to the purely theoretical area of Pragmatics. We have taken the precaution of starting on a workbook, which has led us immediately to the most basic part of language study – and the oldest – which is Semantics.

I’ll delay sharing our insights until I make sure they are being received!

Our new book is: Pragmatics: Jean Stilwell Peccei.



Nominalisation is a key feature in my analysis of abstract language. The school texts which I analysed for Breakthrough to Learning contained many instances of nouns made from verbs (processes, such as condensation from condense) and nouns made from adjectives (conditions, such as warmth from warm). This linguistic mechanism (together with metaphor) makes it possible to consider abstract entitities and the relationship between them. Continue reading

To India and back: the inspirational journey of English Literature

 I’m reading Urszula Clark’s War Words: Language, History and the Discipline of English. Using Basil Bernstein’s model of the pedagogic device, she traces the formation of “English” as a subject in schools.

Last week I read Chapter 2 Language and Education in the Nineteenth Century. I thought I “knew” about this process in general terms at least, but there were many processes at work which I now see in a new light, and one that I had never heard of: the influence of the Indian Civil Service on the teaching of English Literature. Continue reading

BTL: based on Linguistics not Psychology

During the last few months I have been discussing Breakthrough to Learning with Diane Houghton, my good friend and in the eighties my colleague in the Department for English for Overseas Students at the University of Birmingham. I have been struggling to explain to her the academic basis of my work.

Last week I think we made a breakthrough. She had been expecting me to relate my work to cognitive psychology. The text which I commented on in my last blog – on the changes to consciousness made by literacy – are examples of work in this field. This was going on in the eighties at the same time as Breakthrough to Learning was being devised and tested. Continue reading

Creative Teaching and Learning

The Director of Imaginative MInds, Howard Sharron, republished in the last issue of Creative Teaching and Learning an article which I wrote for him in 2000.

He asked me to write an update to that article giving my views on why the Wigan Language Project, in spite of its proven success, failed to be more widely used. I enjoyed writing the article, especially putting the boot into a few of the chumps who blocked its dissemination. I have sent the article off to Howard and I hope it will appear in the next issue.