Daniel Everett argues instead that language is a cultural inventionby Adrian Woolfson / October 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
In this important and fascinating book, Daniel Everett draws on his years of experience studying the languages and cultures of hunter-gatherer tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, to challenge Noam Chomsky’s famous theory of language acquisition. Popularised by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct, Chomsky’s view is that the capacity for natural language—and more specifically what is called generative grammar—is hard-wired into our brains.
But Everett argues instead that language is a cultural invention. As such, language is not significantly different from other cultural artefacts, including axes and cars. It is, furthermore, dependent on brain structures that perform diverse cognitive functions, rather than on a specialised “language organ.”
Everett’s controversial conception of the relationship between the brain, language and culture has two important consequences. In denying the possibility for human instinct, it dispenses with the notion of a biologically programmed human nature.
And by refashioning the mind as a tabula rasa and focusing on culture as the prerequisite and primary cause of language evolution, it pushes back the origins of language to two million years ago—a time when Homo erectus navigated the world on foot and by sea while inventing culture and symbols. Language is generally thought to have originated more recently, perhaps just 100,000 years ago, and to be a unique characteristic of our later Homo sapien speech.
The evidence for Everett’s radical theory, although compelling, is ultimately unconvincing principally because of its denial of genetic constraints.