Let me get personal for a minute.
Linguistics is my first love. There is some alternate universe out there where I became a really successful something or the other in some linguistics field, but in this world it didn’t work out. Part of the problem was that I find reading actual academic texts (scholarly articles) to be extremely boring. While doing my Master’s degree I was often told that my writing had far too much personality to it, and that I needed to make it more academic.
There are very likely other reasons why I would be a terrible academic. I also don’t particularly like the idea of specializing, and I tend to be far too abstract about things.
But I still find myself picking up books on linguistics of all levels and reading them. They always tend to fill me with a lot of joy and wonder for the subject, and while I myself don’t like to specialize, reading the end result of someone’s specialization is always great.
Daniel Everett’s ‘How Language Began’ is a specialization of the kind of topic I would have sucked at studying. The book propose a theory of why language is not an innate human property (as Chomsky proposed, but rather a human invention that grew out of culture (‘Chomsky is wrong’ may actually be a pretty good subtitle for this book, in fact. If you are very interested to know why Noam Chomsky is wrong, this is certainly a very good book.). While ‘invention may be an iffy word for what language is, the notion of human communication being the most advanced form of a ‘semiotic progression’ makes a lot of sense.
There is a certain ‘your millage may vary’ aspect to this review. While reading it, I could not help but have pretty mixed up feelings about what I was reading. On the one hand, large passages of it gave me a feeling of ‘hey wait is this grad school again?’. Considering that a lot of these were attached to the name Charles Sander Pierce, I don’t imagine that this sentiment will be universally held. This book reviewed a lot of the information I had gone over at that time (though not always in my classes), and I was pretty pleased to find how well I remember things I read about a decade ago. Then again, a lot of the research for this book involved the rather scientific and archaeological side of anthropology, and comparing us homo sapiens to the other homo species that we ultimately out-competed. While these sections were more challenging, I found them pretty accessible, which is a credit to the author.
I found the book to be overall rather accessible and interesting. But again, I am not sure to what extent this was informed by my education.
11 thoughts on “How Language Began – Daniel Everett”
What’s his main argument to say Chomsky’s wrong? I’m reading ‘Language Unlimited’ by David Adger atm, published this year, and he makes a pretty convincing case in the other direction.
Hello! Sorry for the late reply.
(Going from memory here. I read this book some time ago) It boils down to a notion that any kind of Language universals (and universal Grammar) haven’t met any kind of burden of proof. Everett did field research on an Amazonian tribe who speak a language called Piraha, which Everett claims lacks recursion, a feature Chomsky has argued must exist in all languages. He instead offers that grammar is just something that evolves from symbolic reasoning.
Is “Language Unlimited” worth reading? I may pick it up after I finish some other books on the ‘to read’ pile
It’s okay, but I didn’t learn that many new stuff from it. Depends how much linguistics you’ve already read. It’s an introduction for a general audience. Prose could have been a bit smoother though.
In that case, I’ll skip it. Thanks.
The topic is exactly what you decribe however. But no mention of Everett or Piraha. I’ve read about Piraha in a different context though, on their lack of numerals and the cognitive consequences. Seems like a celebrity linguistic language!
Apparently the debate is really recently heating up. Chomsky has out and out called Everett a fraud. My education has biased me to one side, so for right now they can sort it out and I will catch up on the matter at a later point.
But yea, the Piraha are fascinating. Their language also includes whistling.
If you are that involved, maybe do read Language Unlimited, or at least read some reviews before deciding to skip it on my word alone. Thanks for the link!
To be fair, I had a very good exposure to Chomsky during my undergrad. I think the two cancel each other out.
If pressed, I’d say I am in Chomsky’s camp, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a 100% binary issue.
Well, it likely isn’t a binary issue. I am becoming more and more convinced that grammar is little more than the brain finding a pattern in language, and so if someone wanted to argue that the pattern finding/forming part of the brain was were we get innate notions of grammar, i’d likely concede. Much of what we call ‘grammar’ is rather ephemeral, anyway, and when you look comparatively at different languages it seems like there is vanishingly little of common between the two.
I think there is also increasing evidence from neuroscience that the brain doesn’t really codify aspects of language in one place in the brain. This is something (I think) Oliver sacks talks about in one of his books about aphasia. I recall an anecdote about a stroke survivor whose aphasia crippled just his ability to write and read logogrphic scripts. So he could no longer read or write Kanji, but was still able to manage with hiragana, katakana and romanji.
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One of main arguments in the book is about deaf homesigners, where in each case syntax arises: 2 word phrases that function as units, split between nouns & verbs, inflection, embedded sentences, specific structures to make sentences negative or questions, word order sensitive to who does what to whom.