Review of Daniel Everett's new book Language: The Cultural Tool

If you have been paying attention to the world of linguistics lately, then you will know that there is a paradigm shift in the works. The old paradigm is Chomsky and Universal Grammar, the idea that knowledge of grammar is more or less innate and not learned. The new paradigm is not quite a coherent movement, but it sometimes goes by names like constructivism, nurturism, machine learning, empiricism, and a host of other names. Basically, if you think that language is for the most part learned during childhood, then you are a constructivist. Dan Everett’s new book Language: The Cultural Tool is an excellent book defending the new paradigm and attacking the old. The Cultural Tool is above all a response to Chomskyans.

The Cultural Tool has a simple thesis: language is not innate, but rather, a cultural tool. He starts the book off with an anecdote about using a bow and arrow in the jungle. Obviously, the bow and arrow is a tool that was invented for the purpose of solving a problem. Although there are general cognitive dispositions that would have enabled humans to invent such a tool, it is very likely false that humans have innate bow and arrow construction knowledge. In the same way, Everett argues that humans do have some uniquely human cognitive dispositions than enable us to rapidly and efficiently learn language, but there is no such innate Universal Grammar that is the same in all humans.

The bow and arrow was invented to solve the problem of killing fast moving sources of protein. But what problem was language invented to solve? (“Invent” must also not be understood as necessarily reflectively conscious) Everett quite rightly argues that it was invented to help solve the problem of communication in a large group of primates. With language, communication takes on a new level of complexity in virtue of its abstraction and information carrying capacity. As Everett says, “Nouns and verbs are the basis of human civilization”. Moreover, Everett tells a nice, fairly plausible evolutionary story about how the needs of communication during a time of medium intensity environmental change during the final phases of the Pleistocene led to selection pressures for language. In a word, humans were in the right place at the right time with the right set of cognitive dispositions. Everett also gives a great defense of the idea that the “universality” of language learning can be accounted for without positing innate grammar by simply acknowledge the fact that all languages serve to solve similar communication problems, and thus have similar (but nonidentical) grammatical structures.

But Everett is also keen to point out linguistic diversity. And Everett is surely a renowned expert on this subject with his decades of experience working with Amazonian peoples. His work with the Pirahã is very well-known and he spends a good amount of time using the Pirahã as examples to support his thesis that language is a cultural tool. But I think a lot of people think Everett’s arguments depend on his interpretations of the Pirahã data. This is not true. The Pirahã are but one strand in his overall argument against Chomsky and Universal Grammar. If the Pirahã didn’t exist, Everett would still be capable of arguing against nativism. But his data on the Pirahã are very interesting and do, in my opinion, strongly support his basic thesis about constructivism.

My main complaint of the book is when Everett deals with the idea of there being thought without language. Everett thinks that nonlinguistic animals can clearly think. He uses the intelligence of his dog as an example. But obviously this depends on what we mean by “think”. If we defined it more narrowly as something like an introspective inner speech, think there is good reason to think “thinking” depends on language. This is actually more like “thinking about thinking”. But there is good philosophical reason to use the term “thought” to refer to such metacognition rather than the type of cognition shared by dogs and other animals. But so long as we are clear Everett is not talking about metacognition, it is really just a terminological quibble, for I surely agree with Everett that there is a good deal of cognition going on independently of learning a language. So Everett is not defending a strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

In summary, The Cultural Tool is an excellent book summarizing in an accessible manner what a response to Chomskyan theory could look like. It’s not a monumental work, so some of the details are left sketchy, but in general I get the sense that Everett is reporting on the development on a progressive research program. And if you are like me, then you will come away from the book with a better understanding of why Chomskyism and Universal Grammar is a degenerating research program. If you are a Chomskyan though, then you will probably be really irritated by Everett. That’s to be expected. But if you are at all skeptical of Universal Grammar though, then you will probably love The Cultural Tool. I think Everett has done the field a huge service by introducing a set of easy to understand metaphors to help us understand language. Thinking about language as culturally constructed cognitive tools as caused me to start thinking of all sorts of other things as tools, like philosophy and reason. So I think it’s an incredibly useful metaphor. Oh, but I do think Everett took the tool-idea a little far at the end of the book when he defended a strong philosophical pragmatism that consciously forgoes the quest for truth. Although in my younger years I would have loved this, Everett’s jump from linguistic pragmatism to philosophical pragmatism strikes me as a little naive. Of course we strive for truth! Or do you not think it is true that language is cultural tool? I would argue that the invention of the concept of truth was itself a great cognitive tool. But nevertheless, Everett’s book is well worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Overall rating: 4.8/5 stars


Filed under Psychology

2 responses to “Review of Daniel Everett's new book Language: The Cultural Tool

  1. this and other works can be a turning point in our history
    and i have worked on this also.

  2. “So Everett is not defending a strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.”

    I’d note that Sapir and Whorf was not defending a strong form either. That is how their hypothesis tends to get portrayed, though. Their framework was more general as a research program, as opposed to an overarching explanatory theory.

    But it’s interesting that research has come around to supporting both the strong and weak forms. We now know that certain examples of language use directly determine aspects of human experience and behavior, in constraining how people think.

    Have you read the work of Daniel Everett’s son, Caleb? He has written two great books, one on linguistic relativity and the other on numerical terms. I suspect that linguistic relativity is going to become more relevant over time, as it is discovered how wide is its applicability.

    Interestingly, Julian Jaynes in a 1991 talk with Brian McVeigh described himself as a Whorfian in certain ways, even as he thought his own theory went further. Even before I read that admission by Jaynes, it seemed obvious to me that Jaynes’ theory of metaphorical mind-space was simply one possibility among many within linguistic relativity.

    So, the application isn’t only wide but potentially quite deep.

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