Sticking It to Chomsky

languageLanguage: the Cultural Tool

by Daniel Everett

Profile Books Ltd (2012)

Book Review

The purpose of this book is to outline a dispute in the linguistic community between those who believe that language is acquired – that human beings develop language as a cultural tool – and “nativists” who believe that people develop language because of their genetic programming.

Noam Chomsky, who is better known as an activist and dissident, is also considered the founder of modern linguistics. Nativists like Chomsky argue that language development is genetic mainly because all human beings acquire language, regardless of their intelligence, all languages have a similar core grammar, including Creole languages invented by children (actually they don’t, as Everett demonstrates) and all children follow the same developmental stages in learning language.

By examining linguistic research into the structure and function of language, as well as the biological requirements necessary to create it, Everett essentially demolishes all of Chomsky’s arguments – but in a nice way. As a former Wycliffe bible translator, Everett lived for many years in the Amazon and has researched over a dozen indigenous languages of Brazil. He has special interest in the language and culture of the Piraha tribe.

Everett takes the side of Aristotle, who first proposed that language is a tool 2300 years ago. Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was the first to articulate this view in the modern area. He believed human language was developed and shaped by the needs of social interaction.

I’ve always been troubled the unquestioning adulation Chomsky receives from the activist community, especially in view of his dismissive attitude towards an extensive body of research pointing to a government role in 9-11 and the John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. Thus I was intrigued to learn of similar concerns in the linguistic community about the unquestioning embrace of his linguistic theories.

14 thoughts on “Sticking It to Chomsky

  1. Thanks for an interesting post! The minimal bit of linguistics I got through in college … way last century … Well, I thought all the ‘creative’ grammars were hooey beyond a certain point. They were a help in forcing us to examine our assumptions about language, but I never thought any one system accounted for everything.

    And Chomsky can sure be dogmatic! Still, no one has all the answers — childish of us perhaps to expect it. If they walk the walk, I tend to cut folks some slack. Unless they just piss me off in some way — so I’m bad too. Thanks again for bringing so many interesting books and videos to our attention. – Linda

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  2. I was particularly impressed that Chomsky has the same cavalier dismissive attitude towards linguists who disagree with him, as he does with assassination researchers. Everett didn’t start the fight with him. Chomsky did by attacking Everett for viewing language as a cultural tool:

    “You begin to speak as a child. What does a three year old child know of culture? Nothing!”

    I can’t imagine anyone who has been a parent or grandparent making a comment like that. Everett devotes two pages to describing all the cultural values a kid has to assimilate by age 3: hygiene (if it’s okay to eat with the dog or off the ground), food (what’s normal to eat), manners (please, thank you, how to ask for more food), when to sit still, when to be quiet, how to express affection, kinship, etc, etc

    I’ve come to think Chomsky’s major flaw is that he’s an island. He doesn’t really know how to appreciate alternative perspectives from other people and use them to refine his own views.

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  3. Tubularsock has never been a big fan of Chomsky but when he buried his head in the sand around 9/11 well that was very telling to Tubularsock. The statement about children’s knowledge about culture has a very clear answer …… everything! WE are so well trained by 3 that it takes the rest of our lives in therapy to un-train all that shit we learned.

    Enlightenment is the undoing ……..

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  4. I’m intrigued by language because my circumstance of liveing in country, village and home where English is rarely used and my singular way of speaking is English and my inability to learn native language of Thai and lao yet i can communicate very well with my 7 year old step daughter. i think language is acuiered both from culture and innate knowlage (DNA) but i would be a poor example of either.

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    • Well, if there’s a gene (or genes) for language, according to Everett they haven’t found it yet. Language is so complicated that it can’t even be traced to one specific area of the brain.

      I tend to agree with Everett that it’s probably not genetically based. Now that scientists are starting to understand the human genome, they’re beginning to see that environmental influences play a major role in tissue and organ development. Genes aren’t nearly as all powerful as we once thought.

      One fact Everett cites that I found really interesting: bananas have more genes than we do.

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      • If it was genetically base i sould have been able to speek French as it and Flemmish was only language spokane when i was concieved. the only language i know is english.

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      • Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes…but Don Foster has a lovely Chapter called Liberation Psychology in Critical Psychology by Derek Hook…he explains the idea that language and ritual shape our worlds, and what seems to be reality is the result of years and years of interaction. Also Wetherell and Potter, which carries on this way of thinking. Groups, identities and social issues is interesting.

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  5. You write that “Everett essentially demolishes all of Chomsky’s arguments.” That’s a pretty hefty claim. While I am not a linguist and haven’t studied Chomsky’s linguistic, the fact that all languages have, essentially, the same grammatical structure, and that any child could learn any language where she to grow up among said language speakers, does to me, suggest that Chomsky may be right when he says that the proverbial “man from Mars” would think that everyone on earth is speaking the same language. To suggest that someone has “demolished” such claims seems to me to be a stretch.

    Regarding conspiracy theory, I think Chomsky is vulnerable. Understanding the forces and interests, say, behind the JFK assassination and 9/11 is no different, it seems to me, than understanding the forces and interests behind any number of coups and assassinations that Chomsky does dissect. I think his aversion to what is regarded as conspiracy theory stems from an emphasis shared by many leftists namely that any analysis worth its salt must incorporate a systemic analysis which captures structural constraints or imperatives and the roles that institutional arrangements foster. Further, I think he believes that the far easier to understand and sexy conspiracy theories, that gain wide adherence, drain away a good deal of potentially beneficial (in terms of organized resistance) dissidence and divert populations from understanding the dynamics of power. The problem, I am assuming Chomsky would say, is less that LBJ was a murderer, let us say, than the “polyarchy” begets evil doing and is sustained when elites, be they crass vice presidents or obscure drone operators, murder. I don’t think structural analysis and conspiracy analysis are mutually exclusive, however. So I would agree that Chomsky has a chink in his armor there. But I also believe that anyone who discounts or dismisses Chomsky’s contribution, both in terms of his political philosophy or linguistics, because of weaknesses – such as they are or might be – does herself a disservice. There are few thinkers or dissidents, in my mind, of Chomsky’s stature.

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    • Well, Jerry, perhaps “demolished” is a bit strong. What Everett does basically is he starts by saying more research is needed to establish whether language is genetic or culturally acquired. He then proceeds to cite lots of research in favor of the latter. What comes across loud and clear is that a) there is very little supporting Chomsky’s position and b) he doesn’t really care (as with 9-11 and the JFK and other assassinations) what the research shows.

      What also comes across is a real rigidity in Chomsky’s thinking about nativism (as in his thinking about government conspiracies). It’s like he got stuck in time and was unable to take account of new findings in rapidly growing fields of psychology and anthropology. Even his linguistic students were aware of this – according to Everett, they used to take bets on how long it would take him to mention the man from Mars in his lectures.

      I also have a big problem with the US left in focusing uniquely on structural analysis without taking account of a whole series of State Crimes Against Democracy that the corporate elite has relied on to maintain control of the levers of party.

      In my opinion, this is the main reason why the American working class has turned their back on the so-called left – and Chomsky for that matter.

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  6. Pingback: Human Nature: Genetic or Cultural? | The Most Revolutionary Act

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