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Language: The Cultural Toolby Daniel L Everett
Synopses & Reviews
A bold and provocative study that presents language not as an innate component of the brain—as most linguists argue—but as a tool unique to each culture world-wide, and as essential to human society as fire.
For years the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes. Daniel Everett argues that, like other tools, language was invented by humans and can be reinvented or lost, and he makes clear how this tool is influenced by and expresses the variety of human societies and experiences. Combining anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and his own pioneering—and adventurous—research with the Amazonian Pirahã, Everett gives us an unprecedented elucidation of this society-defined nature of language. In doing so, he offers us a new understanding of our selves.
"Is language a genetically programmed instinct or something we pick up from the culture around us? This central controversy in linguistics and philosophy is roiled in this unfocused but stimulating treatise. Challenging Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, and other partisans of 'nativism,' which holds that certain kinds of knowledge are hard-wired into us (e.g., Chomsky's 'universal grammar' underlying all languages), linguist Everett (Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes) argues that language is a practical tool for communicating and social bonding, determined by cultural needs and the practicalities of information sharing, that children learn through general intelligence. His sketchy, disorganized treatment touches on neuroscience, linguistics, and information theory; most tellingly, he spotlights nativists' failure to demonstrate that any meaningful universal grammar exists. Along the way, Everett regales readers with the quirks of the Amazonian Indian languages and cultures he studies — some have no words for numbers or colors — in anecdotes that are sometimes cogent but often just colorful. Everett's rambling, overstuffed exposition often loses its thread, and his discussion of cultural influences on language can be more truistic than incisive. Still, readers who hack through the undergrowth will find a compelling riposte to the reigning orthodoxies in linguistics. Photos." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
DANIEL L. EVERETT is dean of Arts and Sciences, Bentley University. He was previously chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, and professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at Illinois State University.
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