cover image Language: The Cultural Tool

Language: The Cultural Tool

Daniel L. Everett. Pantheon, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-307-37853-8

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. (Mar.)