What do linguists and anthropologists do, and what is their purpose? Why is the value of spending over three decades studying the tribal language and culture unique to just 400-odd souls living deep in the Amazonian jungle.
In this exciting and inspiring account Everett explains how sent with his family in the 70s to study the Pirahã people with the aim of translating the New Testament into their language. Initially disappointed by the tribe's pragmatic, stripped-down culture, he began to admire how perfectly adapted the society was to a hostile and capricious environment. The apparent cultural 'simplicity', was really a unique philosophical focus on the 'here and now' and reflected in the Pirahã language, explaining the absence in the tongue of 'normal' abstractions such as numbers, colour terms and even complex grammar.
Everett soon realised the unusual features of Pirahã fundamentally challenged the then-dominant theories of Chomsky's 'universal grammar' and Pinker's popular 'language instinct', both notions claiming language is hard-wired into the brain. Culture, argues Everett persuasively, has always had a huge influence on language and the Chomsky's 'nature not nurture' paradigm has misguided linguistics for years.
The book is divided into two parts, firstly a wonderful description of the richness and perils of Amazon life and secondly - just as exciting, but in a different way - the debate over the Pirahã language and how it impacts on linguistic theory.
The in describing the tribal 'other' the anthropologist - Everett reclaims linguistics as a branch not of psychology but anthropology - sets up a critical mirror to their own society. This may even challenge personal identities. Everett describes movingly how living among such a pragmatic and evidently happy people led him to question his own religious values, and he eventually left the mission for ever.
I'd hugely recommend this book, though, like his excellent follow-up Language: The Cultural Tool
, it is slightly let down by a sometimes oddly narrative erratic structure.