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Language: The Cultural Tool [Format Kindle]

Daniel Everett

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Introduction
The Gift of Prometueus
 
The Greeks told a myth about one of mankind’s greatest tools, fire. The story’s hero was Prometheus, whose name means foreseer. Prometheus grew fond of the creatures that Zeus had asked him to help create, man and woman. He watched them with pity as they huddled cold and fearful of the dark, stumbling blindly after every setting of the sun. He knew the solution to their problem—fire. But Zeus did not want humans to have fire. Fire would give humans more power than Zeus intended. They might even rival the gods themselves. So Zeus forbad it.
 
Prometheus knew the risks of disobeying the king of the gods. Yet for pity and for love he smuggled a charcoal lit by Apollo’s fiery chariot out of Olympus in a fennel stalk. No matter how pure his motives, Prometheus paid a horrible price for his charity. Zeus condemned him to an eternity of pain chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where each day his liver was consumed by a large vulture, regenerating every night in order to fuel his pain on the morrow. Only when the mighty Hercules slew the vulture and broke the chains was Prometheus freed.
 
The myth of Prometheus, like all good myths, encapsulates cultural values and offers answers to keep a group of Homo curious satisfied until a better answer comes along. In this myth we can take away the belief that fire originated once in the human story. We are given a glimpse of the problems that fire was meant to solve. And we are taught that the coming of fire was a momentous event in human history. The Hebrews’ myths also include a narrative about their gods coming to fear the growth of human power. But the Hebrew story differs dramatically from the Greeks’. The Hebrews’ scriptures recognize that the power of language is greater than that of fire. The Hebrew god is not threatened by humans’ control of fire, but rather by their ability to talk to one another. From this appreciation for the power of language emerges the Hebrew myth of the Tower of Babel—the tower that was raised to threaten the gates (Bab) of god (El). In this myth God is not worried about the physical technology of his creation, whether picks, axes, fire, or the like. He is instead infuriated by humans’ ability to work together. This threatens his power. And their cooperation rests upon on their communication. So God scatters his people across the face of the earth. Or as the Bible puts it:
 
And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.’ ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
—Genesis 11: 6–9 New American Standard Bible
 
Ironically, the Hebrew god was not a linguist. He did not seem to realize that diversity strengthens Homo sapiens, and diversity in language and culture strengthens us the most. According to the Bible, God created one man, Adam, and gave him the charge of learning about and naming the flora and fauna of creation. By spreading Adam’s descendants around the globe God in effect created a thousand Adams, learning about and naming not just the Garden of Eden, but the entire world—wherever the children of Prometheus have gone, they have taken fire and language to master and learn about their world. This means that no one of us speaks the ‘right’ language. We all speak the language(s) that helps us and these languages are formed to meet the needs of our culture and social situation.
 
The Hebrews were right about one thing, though. The uttering of the first noun or verb, as non-momentous as that sounds, was arguably of greater importance than the stealing of fire from the gods of Olympus. Nouns and verbs are the basis of human civilization. Without these and other words, we could not utter history and life-changing phrases like ‘I now pronounce you man and wife,’ ‘This must be the place,’ or ‘I name this ship the Titanic.’ If it were not for words, Founding Father Patrick Henry could never have uttered his famous sequence of two nouns, one pronoun, one disjunctive particle, and one verb, ‘Give me Liberty, or give me Death!’ With nouns and verbs society was founded. With nouns and verbs the growth of human knowledge began.
 
Naturally, therefore, a research question that captivates many modern thinkers is precisely the origin of nouns, verbs, sentences, stories, and other elements of human language. Did language and its parts come about suddenly or did they emerge gradually as cultural adaptations?
 
This book is about the development of this great linguistic tool of our brains and communities, the cognitive fire that illuminates the lonely space between us far more brightly than the light of flames ever could. Here we look at the story of mankind’s greatest tool, its purposes, and how it might have come to be.
 
Unlike physical fire, the cognitive fire of language did not exist before humans called it into being. And every individual and culture in the history of our race places its own mark upon this tool. It is an invention that envelops all humans. It unites. It divides. It warms our hearts. It chills our souls. It invigorates our bodies and steels young men for battle. It gives us the greatest pleasure of all—focused and ordered thoughts. We have become Homo loquax, as author Tom Wolfe calls us, or ‘speaking man’. We are the masters of this raging cognitive fire.
 
Language’s contribution to our mastery of the world is one way in which it serves as a tool. It is our greatest display of cognitive technology. It is the basis for an arsenal that includes mathematics, science, philosophy, art, and music. Language enables our brains to do things they could not do without it, like solving arithmetical problems, following recipes, and thinking about where our children are going after school.
 
No linguist, psychologist, anthropologist, or philosopher would disagree that language is useful. But there is enormous disagreement about where this tool came from. Some say that language was discovered by chance, like fire. Others believe that one brilliant Homo sapiens might have invented it 75,000 years or so ago, as the Cherokee chief Sequoya invented writing for his people. Still others claim that language is genetically encoded in the human mind, the fortuitous by-product of packing our skulls full of an unprecedented number of neurons.
 
Easily the most famous answer to this question, though, is that language is part of our genetic endowment and that, because of this, all human languages share an almost identical grammar—which includes sound systems and meanings. Under this view, the only significant differences between languages are their vocabularies. But this is not the only available explanation for the growth and presence of language in all humans. As I have said, I do not even think it is the best answer.
 
This is not a book about why one view of language is wrong and why another view is correct—although it does not shy away from stating its conclusions. Rather, this is a story about the joy of language, a joy that has filled my soul during more than thirty years of field research among indigenous societies of the Americas and life among my fellow Homo loquaces. From each of the nearly two dozen languages I have studied in the Amazon, Mexico, and the United States over the past decades, I have learned things about the nature of our species and our ability to communicate that I never would have learned by living a different life. I have learned about humans’ relation to nature and about perspectives on living and speaking in a world delineated by the ancient cultures of the jungle. I have learned how words reach into my heart and change my life, from the poetry of e.e. cummings and the prose of William James to the fireside stories of the human family. Language gives humans their humanity.
 
But how did this marvelous artifact originate? How is it that all humans possess it? Why are there so many similarities between languages if each one is a tool for a specific culture? And what does it mean, finally, to say that language is a tool? Is this just a way of speaking?
 
The last question answers them all.

Revue de presse

Language: The Cultural Tool, full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett’s years with the Pirahã . . . is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book. . . . A useful study of a burgeoning theory compatible with Darwinism, anthropology, psychology and philosophy—an interdisciplinary orientation the Chomskyans have largely spurned.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Ambitious. . . . [Everett] doesn’t shy from making big claims.”
The New York Times

“[Language] deserves a serious reading.”
The Economist
 
“[Everett’s book] is revelatory. There is nothing about humans that is quite as astonishing as language.”
The Guardian (London)
 
“Everett has . . . produced a book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. This is an intellectual cri de Coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity. After reading it, you will—should—care as much about disappearing languages as you do about the clubbed seal or the harpooned whale. . . . A very rich but also very readable book. Everett is not the first to challenge the reign of Chomsky, but he is the most accessible, and, thanks to his years in Amazonia, the most-intimately informed.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“A must-read for anyone having an interest in knowing what makes us human. . . .  Everett resets the research agenda for linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience towards finding out how our biological endowment and culture interact, to form and shape the rich diversity apparent as we view the human condition.”
—Philip Lieberman, Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, Professor of Anthropology, Brown University
 
“Everett mounts an impassioned argument that language has adaptively emerged as our species’ ‘tool’ for achieving social collectivity via discourse. He sharply questions today’s doctrinal wisdom in the field of linguistics by giving it a pendulum-push back in the direction of anthropology, of Humboldtian cosmography, and of humanity’s evolved socio-cognitive diversity.”
—Michael Silverstein, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, of Linguistics, and of Psychology, University of Chicago
 
“A radical reassessment of the origin and evolution of language. . . . The book eloquently reminds us that the incredible diversity of languages on this planet reflect different ways of thinking and being in the world—a phenomenon that might sadly be on the verge of extinction.”
—Robert Greene, author of The 50th Law and The Descent of Power
 
“For the past half-century, linguistic theory has been dominated by the idea that language is a biologically determined instinct. Daniel Everett argues instead that language is a cultural tool, no different in principle from the physical tools that people have invented in adapting to different physical and cultural environments. The sheer diversity of the world’s 7,000 or so languages strongly challenges any notion of a universal grammar, and suggests instead that languages are the product of general human intelligence, adaptability, and creativity. Everett draws on a wide knowledge of diverse languages and cultures, a deep knowledge of the history of ideas, and above all on his experiences in living among the remote Pirahã people in the Amazon. This is the most recent and most eloquent account of a remarkable sea change that is taking place in our understanding of the nature of human language.”
—Michael Corballis, author of The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization, and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland
 
“This is exciting work.  I learned a tremendous amount from it, as will anyone who is concerned with the nature of language and of mind.”
—Robert Brandom, University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
 
“Margaret Mead among the Samoans; Franz Boas among the Inuit; Bronislaw Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders; Claude Lévi-Strauss among the Bororo and Guaycuru; Ruth Benedict among the Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutls—but to my mind Daniel Everett has now outdone them all. Language: The Cultural Tool, coming upon the heels of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, establishes his thirty years with the Pirahã deep in the Amazon as the most important—and provocative—anthropological field work ever undertaken.”
—Tom Wolfe, author of Hooking Up

“Controversial and leavened with wit, this is the book on language I have been waiting for. A masterpiece, and then some.”
Patricia S. Churchland, professor emerita of philosophy, University of California, San Diego

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 2917 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 364 pages
  • Editeur : Profile Books (22 mars 2012)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B007HLIR0U
  • Synthèse vocale : Activée
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  • Classement des meilleures ventes d'Amazon: n°204.343 dans la Boutique Kindle (Voir le Top 100 dans la Boutique Kindle)

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Amazon.com: 4.5 étoiles sur 5  13 commentaires
31 internautes sur 32 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 From the Amazon Jungle: An Intriguing Riposte to Universal Grammar 23 mai 2012
Par Geoff Bond - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
I came to Everett's work via his first book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes where he describes his life as a missionary living amongst the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon jungle. As a nutritional anthropologist and author Deadly Harvest, I have lived with various native peoples for many years and, like Everett, have taken pains to speak and study deeply the local lingos.

I heard Everett speak at the LSE in London and was intrigued by the language dimension of his work with the Pirahã. This work has led him to take issue with the prevailing paradigm in linguistics, Chomsky's "Universal Grammar". This is the idea that humans are born with a brain prewired with a basic grammar `operating system'. This then runs the `program' (language) of the society into which the child is born. The eminent psycho-linguist Steven Pinker gave currency to these notions and brought them to the general public in his popular book The Language Instinct. This Chomskian view is often called `nativism' and the people who promote this view `nativists'.

This 'nativist' paradigm treats the ability to learn a language as something innate, it is a `biological tool', just as an eye is. This view predicts that ALL languages will share certain features of complex thinking like subordinate clauses (e.g. "I know that he is here"), recursion (e.g. "Mary knows that I know what her husband is thinking"), counting (e.g. "I have three children"), and sophisticated tenses like the conditional (e.g. "If I feel well, I will sing") or the perfect (e.g. "The girl had eaten the cookie before she ate her lunch").

The contrarian view is to say that language and its grammar is a skill we learn in order to survive in our cultural environment and in this respect it is a `cultural tool'. This view predicts that grammars will be as complex or as simple as the cultural environment requires, not more or less.

Everett finds, from his study of Pirahã and other Amazonian languages, that, fatally to the prevailing `nativist' hypothesis, they do not have features like recursion, subordinate clauses and so forth.

He uses a minimum of technical language and, where Everett does go into grammatical concepts, he explains them carefully so that the lay reader has no difficulty following them. All is illustrated with delightful anecdotes and misunderstandings with his Pirahã hosts.

For example, as a missionary he translated the gospels with their accounts of Jesus' doings. When the Pirahã learned that Everett didn't know Jesus personally, they couldn't grasp what or why he was telling them - in their culture you only talk about things you know first hand.

Mothers knew the names of all their children all right, but they had no concept, let alone the language, to express the actual number of children.

In claiming that language is a cultural tool, Everett is taking on the Universal Grammar establishment but, in a manner reminiscent of Origin of Species, he does so mildly (even humbly) yet fearlessly and persuasively. Interestingly, support for Everett's view is coming from linguistic experiments such as those carried out by Simon Kirby at the University of Edinburgh. They don't support `nativism' either but do support the idea that `culture is everything'.

Everett's killer point is this: The features and peculiarities of ALL languages, can be explained by their use of standard brain circuitry; moreover, languages are simply cultural tools adapted to their ecological niche. You don't need to postulate a brain module somehow pre-wired by evolution for a specialized Universal Grammar.

Read this book for a refreshing look at this fascinating field of linguistics. But there is a bonus. This is not a dry, academic work; it is suffused with humanity. There can be no finer testimony than to quote Everett's own words toward the end of the book:

"Like angst-free, realized existentialists, [the Pirahã] embrace the accomplishments of each day and find meaning in their lives without worrying about their children's future or what posterity will think of them. They stare into the eyes of death without blinking and live their physically demanding lives almost constantly laughing and smiling. Their happiness and their lack of worry, the absence of preoccupation with the past, their refusal to fear the future, these things have shaped their language so as to exclude talk about remote times, whether future or past, and to eschew numbers and counting, and to avoid complex sentences, because only people, things and events for which there is direct evidence can participate, placing the burden of their communications on their stories rather than their sentences. They reject career goals and enjoy each day as it comes."
24 internautes sur 28 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Language takes many paths according to need 29 mars 2012
Par KmVictorian - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
Daniel Everett is an authority on languages of the Amazon. In his book, "Language: The Cultural Tool," he uses this expertise to challenge the theories of famed language guru Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky maintains that children are born with a kind of universal language intuition. All of humanity, Chomsky would say, is therefore "hard-wired" to do language in certain definite ways.

Dr. Everett, who lived many years with the Pirahã tribe of Brazil, replies that human expression is not inherently pre-ordered. Rather, language is a unique cultural "tool," originated and modified by the culture in which it occurs.

The author cites varied modes of Pirahã speech--whistling, humming, and tonal devices--all of which are facets of the tribe's language. The Pirahã also have no words for numbers, and only minimal ways of describing color. Everett believes this is because the Pirahã culture perceives no need of expressing math or color differences. Therefore the tribe has devised its own unusual techniques of communication.

If you're intrigued by the many ways human beings can communicate, you'll like this book. (I read it in the Kindle version.)
13 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Good, refreshing, non-technical book from an expert 28 mai 2012
Par Seoigheach - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié
The "universal grammar" or "bioprogram" hypothesis in linguistics is plausible but not sufficiently critically examined. One finds a short discussion in most textbooks, leading to the "obvious" conclusion, and one fears that the beginning student is simultaneously indoctrinated into the Chomskyan world and inoculated against the alternative point of view. "Language: The Cultural Tool" is an accurate title for Mr. Everett's extended meditation on the aspects of this problem. The author, an experienced field linguist/anthropologist, poses the alternative point of view without pressing doctrinaire conclusions on his readers.

This book is recommended for those with a passing interest in the theoretical question of the origin or evolution of language as well as for more technically trained readers, although I concede that the latter may find too many unnecessary explanations or metaphors have been included to make the ideas accessible to the lowest common denominator of reader. Despite the impression of unnecessary length, Mr. Everett has combined humility and subtlety in advancing the possibility of an alternative hypothesis, and peppered his essay with many concrete examples, especially from his personal experience in Amazonian languages.

As persuasive as the arguments in favor of Chomskyan nativism may be, there really is no scientific evidence that conclusively establishes it. Perhaps there cannot be for the foreseeable future. But Mr. Everett does an admirable job of sketching how it might be that language is not spawned by language-specific genetic hardware but rather caused by more general cognitive and social structures.

If you are interested in these topics, make sure also to read Derek Bickerton's excellent forays into the subject.
9 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Interesting argument against Chomsky's nativist universal grammers 29 octobre 2012
Par GeooeG - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
The book lays out a well reasoned argument against Chomsky's nativist universal grammars based on the authors extensive study of the languages of primitive populations in South America. The book explores the claims of anatomical features of the brain that would have "housed" a language organ. It discusses the linguistic features that are claimed to be universal, but in fact are shown to be missing in some of the languages studied by the author. The book written to a more general audience and is a pleasant read.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Language and culture are etangled 20 juin 2014
Par CamilaBrazil - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
I read this book after reading Daniel L. Everett book "Don't sleep there are sneaks" about his experience with the Pirañas on the Amaziona Jungle. On that book an on this onw more enforcebly he points out that culture enforces the language of every community. It's a great thesis about how reality is build by the culture or by the language, better, by the knotty relation between those two concepts, languagem and culture.
If you are interested in that matter you should read it!
I hope you enjoy
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