In A Myriad of Tongues (Harvard Univ., Sept.), University of Miami anthropologist Everett examines the ways language shapes how people think.

How did spending your childhood in the jungles of Amazonia—where your father, also an anthropologist, studied Pirahã-speaking peoples—inform this book?

Those years gave me some idea of just how different languages and cultures could be. I eventually realized that many people, including many in academia, underestimate the extent of linguistic and cultural diversity. It was that realization that led to this book.

What are some of your favorite examples of how a language shapes its speakers?

In English, we think of the future as being in front of us and the past behind us. In contrast, many of the world’s languages and cultures use other strategies to make sense of the passing of time. The Aymara of the Andes talk and think about the future as though it is behind them, as do some Tibetan cultures. Kuuk Thaayorre speakers in Australia think about time as moving from east to west. The Yupno of New Guinea talk and gesture about time as though it moves uphill. In some cultures, people don’t even talk about the passing of time in spatial terms. In the Tupi-Kawahíb language of Amazonia, there is no evidence that people talk or think about time in terms of space, or that they refer much to time at all.

How has studying the languages of Indigenous peoples across the globe affected how you think about your native English?

I have come to appreciate some of the strengths and weaknesses of English. For example, our terminology for smells is somewhat impoverished. We often resort to phrases like “smells like popcorn” but don’t have the abstract words for smells that some languages do. In contrast, English has more abstract words for colors than many languages.

Why study language diversity?

Studying linguistic diversity is essential to understanding how our species actually talks and thinks. We used to think there was a “universal grammar” and that all humans perceived spatial relationships, the passing of time, numbers, and other basic cognitive phenomena in fundamentally similar ways. Now we see that there are no features that are found in all the world’s languages.

How do you approach writing about science for the general public?

I focus primarily on topics that resonate with college students and others who are not specialists. Sometimes as specialists we get caught up in debates that are trivial and boring to others. Lectures and conversations outside academia are a great way to get a sense of what most people actually find fascinating. These impressions guide the topics I select and how I edit.