by Daniel Everett
Profile Books Ltd (2012)
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.