cover image A Myriad of Tongues: How Languages Reveal Differences in How We Think

A Myriad of Tongues: How Languages Reveal Differences in How We Think

Caleb Everett. Harvard Univ, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-674-97658-0

University of Miami anthropologist Everett (Numbers and the Making of Us) analyzes how language affects thought in this stimulating deep dive. Drawing on research on Indigenous peoples across the globe, Everett argues that their languages challenge linguists’ assumptions about “universal” features of grammar. For example, the Yucatec Mayan and Paraguayan Guaraní have no tenses, while the Amazonian Yagua language has eight, including five past tenses that indicate how long ago a described incident occurred. “Languages tend to reflect the environments in which they evolve,” Everett contends, observing that the Yupno, who live in the highlands of eastern New Guinea, refer to future events as “uphill” and past events as “downhill,” and that Jahai-speaking hunter-gatherers in rainforests along the border of Malaysia and Thailand have rich vocabularies for describing common odors—the word cnes, for instance, can refer to the smell of smoke, “a particular species of millipede,” or “the wood of the wild mango tree.” Everett relates complex linguistic discussions in accessible terms, and each page is full of thought-provoking insights (North Australian Kuuk Thaayorre speakers think of time as moving from “east to west,” whereas the more “egocentric” English language considers time to proceed from the self-referential “left to right”). This edifying survey impresses. (Sept.)