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Language: The Cultural Tool - Daniel L. Everett After reading and reviewing Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, I emailed Dan Everett to ask him for answers to the questions I raised in my review. His response was that I should read his newest book, Language The Cultural Tool. And so I have. I would advise at least glossing over that review as this one is in part a commentary on my previous thoughts.

Everett’s style is very approachable and the book is a clean read, good for the novice. In fact, I think my biggest complaint is that Everett glosses too much and doesn’t always give detailed support for his arguments. He is focused on disproving the nativist (Chomskyian) theory much more than proposing any theory of his own. One of my complaints with DSTAS was that his argument was too extreme (focused more on language as environmentally determined at the expense of admitting that there may be any biological component). I was satisfied here to see that he acknowledges that biology does (in part) affect language development.

One of my biggest complaints with DSTAS is that Everett appears to argue that the Pirahas do not have recursion. He emphasizes this point in the book because recursion is so important for Chomsky’s theory. However, I was not convinced that they don’t show evidence of recursive thoughts in their storytelling (even if they don’t have recursion in a single sentence). Again, in LTCT, Everett loves to point out the lack of recursion in Piraha language. However, eventually he gives examples of Piraha's recursive thinking. Piraha are not able to give complex recursive sentences (his example is ‘John believes that Peter believes that Bill believes that the president believes that the moon is green cheese’ as having too many levels to accurately be presented in Piraha), but they can give a short recursion (the equivalent of, but again not contained in one sentence and without the use of “thought”: Koxoi said that Kohoi thought the foreign woman is pretty.). I was very excited to see that Everett modified his position to allow that there is recursion in Piraha language (and by extension their thinking).

I was disappointed, though, because I think he should have brought the Piraha’s temporal restrictions into the discussion on recursion. Pirahas do not use past tense and will not accept stories that are not verified. Based on my (very limited) understanding of the Pirahas it seems obvious to me that if the purpose of recursion in language is to (in part) express complex ideas about hearsay then OF COURSE Piraha would not have recursion in their language because it is not necessary to them. I thought this would have been a good example for Everett to use to support his theory that language develops as a cultural tool; the absence of recursion is simply a reflection of it being unnecessary for them.

I brought up several questions about Piraha life and culture in my DSTAS review that I had hoped Everett would answer when I sent him an email. Unfortunately, none of these were addressed in LTCT (certainly they are not topical to this book and my expectations were not high that I would find the the answers, and I did not).

I also did not find any sociological (or ethnomethodological) references in LTCT. This, was once again surprising as sociology (the study of societies) is highly relevant when thinking about both culture and language. Specifically, his example when he discusses meaning (defined as evolving within each language “over time through the history of interactions of a group of people in a specific culture”) using an Amazonian’s interpretation of the thump of a Brazil nut falling to the ground as meaning that the nuts are ripe is ethnomethodological, yet he does not appear to be aware of the existence of ethnomethodology.

Of course, in reading LTCT, I had more questions and thoughts that were completely separate from my reading of DSTAS.

First, I was amused at Everett’s shying away from any attempt at suggesting a reason for the Wari’s use of “our hole” as a term for “wife”. Certainly I agree that one would want to spend a significant amount of time with these people before projecting any kind of answer to the question (and I agree that we could argue that it is derogatory or that it is highly respectful, depending on the intent of the user). However, I thought his refusal to comment was a cop-out given that he has spent quite a bit of time with these people AND two pages later he is willing to give quite an interpretation of not only the content of ‘The Origin of Corn' but also it’s cultural position and language choice. Certainly it seems like he is deciding to pick and choose where to make his interpretations, based on what is likely or not likely to cause offense to his readers.

Similarly, I found him stepping lightly in his interpretation of the Banawas practice of imprisoning young girls in a hut prior to menstruation and then releasing them to a public beating. I get that we should not put our Western interpretations on such scenes and that these people have their own values/beliefs/cultures by which they have lived for years. However, after having described this practice, he (only 3 pages later in a footnote) decries the uproar over Paiacan’s rape and concludes with “No culture values rape. No culture values violence. But all have them.” Certainly, I am not condoning rape, but I do agree that the loss of Paiacan as a representative was great and that the ensuing uproar in which blame was placed on the various groups in a racist manner was unnecessary and unproductive. HOWEVER, Everett cannot make the claim that violence is not a part of some (maybe all) cultures after just having described such a horrific ritual. I felt like Everett was at times pandering to his Western audience rather than engaging in real cultural analysis.

Everett makes a compelling argument using the Greyfriars Bobby example that categorization is a precursor to language. He emphasizes that “we have evolved to create and store concepts through signs and to recognize relationships between the signs so formed.” I do not disagree and I am convinced the generalization is a requirement for language. However, in his emphasis of this as an evolutionary trait that marks humans as distinctly different from other animals he comes off sounding quite a bit like he is making an argument for a “categorization gene”.

I was not convinced by his argument that Pirahas do not have color words. I get that they don’t have a word for “red”, but instead use “it is like blood”, but certainly the fact that EVERYONE uses this same phrase indicates that it is a color word? Isn’t it just a compound word? Could we say that in English we don’t have a word for the place where I go to rid myself of bodily waste because I call it a “bathroom” and in British English they call it a “water closet”, both of which are compound phrases which we (as a CULTURE) have agreed mean the place in my house that I can find a toilet? Interestingly enough, in his discussion on time of day, Everett describes Pirahas’ words for (to use one example) noon as “in sun big be”, but he calls these words. He does not go on to suggest that Pirahans don’t have time words. What is the real difference here? The use of a phrase seems okay to me if it is universally accepted by the culture and Everett is not consistent within the book.

My last nit-picky comment has to do with his choice of examples to compare the written word with the spoken word. Everett uses a story from Piraha about a man’s son almost having been bit by a snake and a published English newspaper article to highlight the difference in redundancy between languages in a society with written word and one without. WTF? This is not a fair comparison. If he wants to compare the resultant language between these two societies we should look at two oral stories from speakers describing either a mundane or an emotional event. I would expect that a literate American English speaker describing a story in which their adrenaline was raised and the health/safety of their child was threatened would use a hell of a lot more redundancy than a newspaper article about cash crops. We might see that Piraha uses more redundancy, but maybe not. Certainly the most scientific way to analyze this would be to see the oral representations of similar (again either emotional or mundane) events and then also a later written account (I understand the written version would only be in English) and compare the change in language, redundancy, and other parts of the narrative.

Overall it was certainly an interesting book. I completely agree with his premise (that language develops evolutionarily as a response to each society’s needs) and the book is very approachable. I would have liked to see a bit more in-depth analysis and I would also love to hear more about the fabulous Piraha.