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Language: The Cultural Tool [Paperback]

Daniel Everett
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

21 Mar 2013

Like other tools, language was invented, can be reinvented or lost, and shows significant variation across cultures. It's as essential to survival as fire - and, like fire, is found in all human societies.

Language presents the bold and controversial idea that language is not an innate component of the brain, as has been famously argued by Chomsky and Pinker. Rather, it's a cultural tool which varies much more across different societies than the innateness view suggests.

Fusing adventure, anthropology, linguistics and psychology, and drawing on Everett's pioneering research with the Amazonian Pirahãs, Language argues that language is embedded within - and is inseparable from - its specific culture. This book is like a fire that will generate much light. And much heat.


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Language: The Cultural Tool + The Unfolding Of Language + The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (21 Mar 2013)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1846682681
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846682681
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 183,409 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Impressively modest and reasoned ... deserves a serious reading (Economist)

Revelatory. There is nothing about humans that is quite as astonishing as language (Guardian)

A book whose importance is almost impossible to overstate. This is an intellectual cri de coeur and a profound celebration of human diversity ... A very rich but also very readable book (Sunday Times)

The most important - and provocative - anthropological field work ever undertaken (Tom Wolfe)

Controversial, driven by data from across the sciences, and leavened with wit - Language: The Cultural Tool is the book on language I have been waiting and waiting for. A masterpiece, and then some (Patricia S. Churchland)

A must-read for anyone having an interest in knowing what makes us human (Patricia S. Churchland)

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)

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)

Thoughtfully reflecting on the communicative ecologies of the Amazonian peoples among whom he has lived and worked, Dan Everett mounts an impassioned argument that language has adaptively emerged as our species' "tool" for achieving social collectivity via discourse (Michael Silverstein)

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)

A very good read ... a most lively introduction (Times Higher Educational Supplement)

Book Description

A groundbreaking and controversial new theory about how we talk.

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nurture not nature 18 Aug 2012
Format:Paperback
An entertaining and convincing riposte both to Noam Chomsky's notion of 'universal grammar' which has dominated linguistics for decades and Steven Pinker's populist 'language instinct'. Both so-called 'nativist' theories claim the capacity and underlying language structure is somehow genetically 'programmed in' to the human brain, and that the difference between for example Japanese and German are so superficial to be hardly worth studying. Above all, Chomsky and Pinker argue that culture is of minimal importance to the structure of languages.

Everett refutes this almost completely, basing his case on his own decades-long fieldwork with the Pirahã people of the Amazon and the emerging evidence from a wide range of other researchers that culture is vitally important to language formation. Everett argues that language is a tool, highly adapted to a particular culture and well capable of having evolved from non-language cognitive skills. There was simply never any need to evolve a 'language instinct' and it is the actually the culturally-contextualised differences between languages, not their underlying similarities (which may be due more to basic cognitive processes than genetics anyway) that help us understand how human language works.

It is an enthralling and emotional tale, unfortunately often undermined by a sprawling structure that sometimes reads like the jumbled lecture notes of a rather good undergraduate course, complete with frequent repetitions for the slower student. The argument clearly wins on points but I felt needed a tighter, more focused approach to land a knock-out blow.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this book! 1 May 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is incredibly interesting. I'm a linguistics student and it really filled in some of the gaps in my thinking about the possibility of linguistic innateism and the ontogenesis of language.

The tone of the book is very easy to understand and full of anecdotes, yet not dumbed down which is not easy to achieve! Loved this book and have recommended it to lots of my friends.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hello UG, this is reality speaking - Piraha. 10 April 2013
Format:Paperback
A brilliantly written exposition of one of the discipline's most ambitious projects - an anthropological linguistic account of an amazing language, which, according to the claims made by the essentializing ideology of generativism, suffices as falsification of an outdated theory. In place of the old theory comes a rich, multifaceted, emergent account of language as it really is - a product of the world speakers live in, a miracle of cognitive adaptability. Linguistics has reached a tipping point. To understand language, it is time to stop navel-gazing, and look outwards into the world. thank you Daniel Everett for this timely book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but not a strong thread of argument 31 Mar 2013
Format:Paperback
I am three-quarters of the way through this very absorbing book. It is packed with material about linguistics and the cultural element of language, most of which was new to me and all of which is interesting. The information about the Piraha tribe of the Amazon is fascinating and I am about to buy Everett's other book on this subject.

However, as other reviewers have said, there does not seem to be a strong thread of argument to the book. In short, I am not sure what Mr Everett is getting at. I am still reading with interest, but would have appreciated a clearer exposition of his position. He seems a highly intelligent and orderly person, so perhaps I have just missed something.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Academic but very good 21 April 2012
By RJS
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is quite academic and so could be quite-hard going for people with no background in Lingusitics. However, it is very well written and the author has tried hard to make the subject matter accessible. It presents convincing arguments in favour of language being a cultural tool rather than an innate skill. Overall, it's well-worth ploughing through
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