Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett

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Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A new take on the development of language, this turns Chomsky's theories on their heads. Much easier to read than you might expect, with great travel anecdotes too.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846682674

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Daniel Everett previously worked as a missionary in far flung corners of the world– a fact that isn’t surprising given the number of references to faith that crop up over the pages. This new book, however, is about two much more appealing (to me) subjects: language and travel. If Bill Bryson is a travel writer with an interest in linguistics, then Daniel Everett is a linguist with an interest in travel. It’s not quite the ‘read it by a pool’ sort of book that Bryson might release but is somewhere between a formalised every day read and a text book with a big dollop of informality stirred in. The travel stories – jaunts to Brazil, Mexico and beyond – are great, and while you might think they’re taking things a bit off track (albeit in a rather pleasant way) sooner or later the linguistic point will become clear.

The main argument of the book is that language isn’t innate (think Chomsky), that there isn’t a language instinct whatever Steven Pinker says. Instead, Everett’s idea is that language is a cultural ‘tool’ that comes from, and is shaped by, the part of the world or culture from which is has developed. It’s definitely an interesting idea, that grammar and word order for individual languages evolve to suit the requirements of their speakers. Some languages, for example, use sounds not words – whistling, humming and so on. The Pirahã, with whom Everett spends a lot of time, have no words for numbers, and far fewer ways to describe colour than we do. Made to consider why, Everett concludes they simply don’t have a need: without a monetary system of the kind you or I would recognise, counting becomes less important beyond a simple one / more than one distinction.

The book is packed full of easy and more complex examples that really illustrate the points well. We look at the cultural knowledge needed to interpret words – like a ‘STOP’ sign which doesn’t mean do an emergency break, pull over, turn off your engine, turn around, but instead means slow down to a halt as you approach the junction, then start off again when the coast is clear. We look at how the same words said by different people or in different ways can produce varying effects or responses in listeners - from sarcasm to a joke just not being funny if it’s not told right to some great examples of ambiguity (Prostitutes appeal to Pope). Cultural values again.

This book is much more accessible than I had predicted from its length, title and even cover. It features sociology as much as it does linguistics which is a great help for those who have never studied either (at least you’ll be living the former, so to speak). No previous formal study of linguistics is required but if you are new to the field you’ll certainly pick up the basics (if you don’t already know how to read S -> NP VP before you start the book, you will by a few chapters in).

The length of the book stands out. It does go on and on and on a bit, and I found it much more pleasant to read a chapter at a time over a week or so than to try to plough through it in one go.

Most people who pick this up will already be familiar with the field, but as I’ve said, you don’t need that background knowledge and the book starts at the beginning with the question of what language is sign language ‘language’? Are computer languages?), working its way up. The ideas presented challenge common beliefs, giving an alternative perspective to what you may have believed to be the undeniable truth. It’s a highly interesting read that would have kept my attention for the linguistics alone, but it’s the brilliant travel stories that really made it stand out. Perhaps an atypical combination, but it works very well.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying us with this book.

If you’d rather focus more on the travel, less on the language, then the earlier Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes might be just the ticket.

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