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Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett

Antony Tomlinson discusses the language culture of Daniel Everett.

Officially a work of popular linguistics, this book will nonetheless fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in the philosophy of language. This is hardly surprising, given that modern philosophy and linguistics so often cross paths. Indeed, as the author, American linguist Daniel Everett notes, without philosophers such as C.S. Peirce [see also Brief Lives, this issue] and J.L. Austin, modern linguistics would be a very different discipline. Everett has a clear appreciation of this mutually-beneficial relationship, and draws on both disciplines in this rewarding contribution to a fierce on-going debate about the basis of language.

Following Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary work, the mainstream view for many linguists is that the rules of grammar for natural languages are innate. That is to say, they hold that there is an natural selection-developed ‘language faculty’ in the human brain which provides the basic grammatical rules for any human language. This view of linguistic ability being innate, referred to by Everett as ‘nativism’, was popularised in Steven Pinker’s 1994 book The Language Instinct.

Plato is a key inspiration for views advocating innate knowledge. In his Socratic dialogue, Meno (an excerpt from which is helpfully provided by Everett), Socrates notes that an uneducated slave boy is capable of complex mathematical reasoning (about Pythagoras’s Theorem). Given that the boy will have never been explicitly taught mathematics, Socrates concludes that his competence must be the result of innate mathematical knowledge. Similarly, Chomsky notes that infants are only ever exposed to adults’ language as a stream of sounds. Nevertheless, in a relatively short time, children gain an uncanny competence in producing grammatically correct, original sentences, in whatever the surrounding language. The ability of children to gain such competence without having explicitly learned rules of grammar must be explained by the fact that the grammar already exists in some form in the child’s brain, the nativists say.

The nativist view has striking implications. If grammar is innate, then all human languages should follow the same basic rules. Yet as anyone who has ever tried to learn another language knows, the grammatical rules for different languages are extremely varied. To explain this, nativists argue that while at a surface level different languages have various structures, underlying them all is a ‘universal grammar’ from which each individual language’s grammar system is derived. One task of nativist linguists, then, is to uncover the rules of universal grammar.

This idea of an innate universal grammar has not been as widely accepted in philosophy as it has been in linguistics. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later views on language, many philosophers are sympathetic to the idea that language is a tool created by human societies to achieve communicative tasks. On such a view, the rules of grammar would be much like the rules of a game; and like games, languages are socially-created practices to be learned through training. Thus, the rules of language are no more innate to the mind of the child than the rules of chess.

As indicated by the title of this book, Everett is a linguist who challenges the nativist orthodoxy and supports the idea that language is a socially-created tool. He does this both with incisive philosophical argument and with empirical evidence drawn from his own extensive experience as a field linguist.

Anti-Nativist Natives

Nativist linguists have sometimes brushed off their philosophical critics by pointing to empirical evidence in support of their position. However, Everett elegantly dissects the philosophical confusion exhibited in nativists’ interpretation of the evidence. For instance, nativists point out that certain areas of the adult human brain seem to have specialised linguistic functions. These areas, they conclude, represent the language faculty where universal grammar has been evolutionarily pre-programmed.

Everett’s sharp reply is that “All human knowledge is found in the human brain and in some sense the tissue in which the knowledge is contained is specialised for this knowledge. But this tells us little about the ultimate source of that knowledge” (p.92). To use Everett’s own illustration, the fact that an area of the brain is specialised for language does not show that the rules of language are innate, any more than the fact that we remember recipes mainly via a certain part of the brain shows that we have an innate ‘gourmet faculty’. And Everett provides similar arguments against other nativist appeals to empirical evidence. In each case, Everett establishes that the data can be accounted for without appealing to an innate universal grammar. He concludes that we should wield Ockham’s razor, and remove such an entity from our explanations.

In addition, Everett provides his own empirical data which casts doubt upon the notion of an innate universal grammar. The data he relies on is available as a result of his many years living amongst the indigenous Pirahã people of Brazil. And just as Michel de Montaigne’s ethical thoughts were inspired by encounters with Brazilian tribes, Everett’s Brazilian anthropological research will no doubt inspire contemporary philosophical minds.

If language is a tool created by a society we would expect the culture of any society to be reflected in its language, and in particular, in its grammar. In the language of the Pirahã, Everett feels he has found evidence for such a link. For instance, he claims that the language of this small, isolated community lacks words for numbers, and also tenses to describe distant past events. The day-to-day lifestyle of these hunter-gatherers means that such vocabulary and grammar is of no use to them, and so has not been developed within their language.

Everett’s most controversial claim, and the one most crucial to his overturning Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar, is that the Pirahã language lacks recursion. Recursion is one of the few features of universal grammar agreed on by Chomsky and his associates. It refers to the way in which we use simple linguistic structures to create more complex ones. For example, the sentence ‘John is busy’ can be embedded in a more complex sentence thus: ‘Peter said that John is busy’. We can then apply the same process again to create ‘Sarah thinks that Peter said that John is busy’.

According to Everett, it is grammatically impossible to create recursive structures in Pirahã. Culturally-important suffixes attached to sentences effectively block attempts to embed one linguistic structure in another in Pirahã. This means that Pirahã speakers wanting to express the equivalent of ‘Peter said that John is busy’ have to use two sentences instead of one. While this may be an underwhelming discovery in and of itself, to Everett it provides a killer counterexample to Chomsky’s theory. If nativists cannot even cite recursion as a grammatical feature of every human language, there is little left that could count as universal grammar.

More Things Not Embedded

One disappointing feature of the book is that Everett does not give a more detailed explanation of the features of Pirahã grammar which prevent it from exhibiting recursion. He claims that “Since this is not a grammar book, there is no need to go deeply into the details of Pirahã sentence structure” (p.288). Nevertheless, as his central and most controversial argument hinges on these structures, it seems to short-change the reader not to devote space to clarifying this issue.

This is one of several ways in which the writer occasionally seems to underestimate the reader. There is a lot of repetition, reminding us of ideas that often do not need restating. The use of rock lyrics to emphasise points also becomes a little grating. Nevertheless these are minor irritations. The book is generally a pleasant and absorbing read. And alongside its primary anti-nativist project it explores a number of other fascinating questions, such as the relationship between language and thought, the role of science, and ethical issues surrounding the extinction of languages. In summary, the book is an excellent introduction to one of the most pertinent debates in contemporary linguistics and philosophy of language. Whatever your position in this debate, this book will provide you with a wealth of material to mull over.

© Antony Tomlinson 2012

Antony Tomlinson did postgraduate studies in philosophy at Cambridge, followed by a stint as a philosophy lecturer at Lakeland College in Japan. He currently creates language-teaching materials for the University of Cambridge.

Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett, Profile Books, 2012. ISBN: 9781846682674.

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