Saturday, April 07, 2012
‘Language: The Cultural Tool,’ by Daniel L. Everett
Illustration by Triboro Design
Few linguists doubt that natural selection has played a part in humans’ linguistic ability. We all speak. Our vocal tract is honed to produce the sonic richness and precision of speech. Animals couldn’t speak even if they wanted to. In the 1960s, however, Noam Chomsky pushed the envelope with a radical proposal: a theory that humans have an innate mental apparatus specifically devoted to assembling words into sentences — an inborn “language organ.”
All that to get a ball down a hill, and I left out some tricky bits. These phantom leaps make sense only with ingrown justifications that, by the year, have less and less to do with developments in psychology, biology or genetics. Yet adherents to Chomsky’s theory can be pitilessly dismissive of detractors as just not up for serious abstraction.
It is the Chomskyan take on language that Daniel L. Everett, a linguist best known for his work in the Amazon among the Pirahã, challenges in “Language: The Cultural Tool.” Chomsky argues that language is too complex, and mastered by children too quickly, for it to be a learned skill like riding a bicycle. There must be a genetic program for learning language, which as a pan-human trait should be applicable to any language a child hears. Languages seem so vastly different from one another, but for Chomskyans this is a mere matter of word shapes; in terms of how we put the words together, languages are all minor variations on a single universal grammar — the one underlying that jumping-He-on-the-tree phenomenon.