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on 18 August 2012
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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on 27 May 2012
Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but "Language: The Cultural Tool" is written in a disappointingly simple way, aimed at people with little understanding of linguistics. The author often digresses and explains basic concepts at great length, while examples of utterances in Pirahã are not sufficiently analysed.

For instance, the example of three Pirahã sentences (?) that were supposed to show that Pirahã sentences are not recursive seems to contradict this very assumption, as each of the units the author considers a separate sentence indicates that the following unit is indirect speech in a different way, as if showing different layers of embedding for the final unit, which could just as well mean that the whole structure either is a sentence or is analogous to one, and that recursion does exist in Pirahã.

The author tries to prove that there is no universal grammar by showing how different (from English) the languages spoken by tribes living in the rainforest are. However, the sentences used as examples are translated literally and their structure is not sufficiently analysed. The author's ignorance of analogy, inability to consistently operate on the same concepts, amazement at morphology that is common in many widely used modern languages and presentation of any differences from English grammar as something very exotic made me very sceptical about the validity of his theories and analysis of the Pirahã language.
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on 1 May 2012
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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on 31 March 2013
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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on 21 April 2012
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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on 27 December 2015
As an anthropological linguist, the hype about this “revolutionary” book encouraged me to buy it. I have always hated the arm-chair “universal grammar” of the Chomskyan variety and always rejected “language as instinct” thesis in favour of “language as a cultural tool” and “language as social semiotic” theses. Some linguists have done excellent work to prove that there are no absolute linguistic universals, but Everett is not one of them. This book is disappointingly basic. Everett’s analysis of the Pirahã syntax is so basic and shallow that one starts doubting his central argument that there is no recursion in Pirahã syntax. There is interesting information about the culture of the Pirahã-speaking community and about the male and female speakers having slightly different phonological systems. But still as a linguist I find the book highly disappointing.
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on 21 November 2013
I enjoyed Everett's book but did feel similar to other reviewers in that it tends to constantly recap its theories. This leads to repetition. However, his examples are of how culture can shape language are truly fascinating. I particularly liked the examples of kinship systems of the world and the differences between the language used by modern western society vs a society of intimates like the Amazonian Indians. I prefered Everett's `Don't Sleep, there are Snakes' but `Language: the cultural tool' is certainly an enthralling read.
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on 29 June 2012
This book was an impulse buy after having seen it in my local Waterstone's. I'm very interested in language and linguistics, but I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this book.

I was pretty disappointed. In this book, Daniel Everett tries to explain... well, I'm not entirely sure what he tries to explain, the book isn't very well structured. The main argument seems to be "Chomsky is wrong" but, thankfully, he doesn't go about this in an aggressive "I'm right you're wrong" manner. His line of argument is that language is the product of culture, and the only reason that every human culture has language is that every human culture needs it; there is no genetic, neural or psychological predisposition for language.

He also tries to illustrate his arguments with many examples, 98% of which come from the Amazonian language Pirahã, which (as we are constantly reminded) Daniel Everett has studied for many years. This gets tiresome after a while, and if I wanted to learn everything about the Pirahã people, I would have bought Everett's other book.

The arguments do occasionally go over my head, and this is perhaps why I didn't enjoy the book as much as I could, and Everett's whole-hearted rejection of Chomskyan principles of universal grammar and linguistic nativism did make me somewhat uncomfortable.

On the whole, this book contained a few interesting nuggets of information, and it may be of help / limited interest to people who are interested in linguistics, but it's not very in depth, it's not structured very well and it's all about the Pirahã, so I wouldn't recommend it to people with anything less than a strong interest in the subject matter.
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on 12 October 2012
I'm not a professional linguist, but I work with (and create) computational languages of the sort described by classical Chomskyan theory, and have many sympathies with it as a theory of language, regardless of whether it is the mechanism of language in humans.

This book looked interesting, but turned out to be a disappointing read. The logic of many of the arguments is really quite flawed, often under-pinned by small amounts of anecdotal evidence, and / or the evidence taken from the Piraha language. The presentation of evidence in general is poor.

Everett never really successfully explains what he thinks a 'tool' is, only that it is something invented by culture rather than built in to our neuro-physiology. Ok, he could have called it a 'cultural artefact' (e.g. like dancing, music or embroidery), but .. a 'tool'?

Otherwise, lurking between the lines, and at some points explicit, is Everett's dismissal of the Chomskyan programme. But he fails to even mention the 'minimalist program' (MP) started in the 90s and under refinement ever since. In the MP, Chomsky and other researchers work on the idea that a 'Merge' operator is a built-in, and responsible for creating binary relations between linguistic elements, e.g. a verb and a noun. Repeated application of this operator (i.e. by whatever neural circuitry does the actual work) enables us to create phrases and eventually sentences that can be uttered. The point of the MP is to provide a simpler theory with the same explanatory power as the more complex previous theories of universal grammar. It's arguably difficult if not impossible to prove this kind of thing at a neurological level, but until we have developed a generalised ability to find the neural circuits responsible for any particular mental capability, it will remain hidden.

The Minimalist Program is what it says: a research program, not a fixed theory. Having done some detailed research on visual cognition in the past, it seems to me to be reasonable. It may even be shown one day by implementation in neural network systems to be a solid model of language for all cultures.

Against this, Everett doesn't appear to have anything really solid to propose. He claims that there is nothing innate or instinctive about language - we just create it to solve a communication problem. That's like saying we just created stereoscopic visual processing to enable us to get around without falling over. But it's an unavoidable fact that infants start using language from 1-2 years old, without the slightest notion of or access to 'culture', just as visual processing starts working very soon after birth.

In the end most of the proof against nativist theories is provided by purely cultural linguistic formulations, which are well known to be rule-breaking patterns, precisely employed for the point of comedy or secret communication.

I would suggest this book instead: The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray.
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on 18 June 2015
Fascinating. Set a few hours aside each time you dip into this!
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