I was watching a very interesting lecture by Linguist Daniel Everett today (author of ‘Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle; his account of the culture and language of the Pirahã people’). He was talking about his time in the Amazonian jungle with a small tribe called the Pirahã. He first went there as a missionary in the 70’s in the hope of learning their language (one that was utterly unknown to anyone else but the tribe) in order to convert them to Christianity. 30 years later they converted him and he is now an aethiest.
However, that is not the extrodinary part of his tale. What is more important and profound are the conclusions he drew from his experience with the tribe, their language and culture and the impact his writings have had on the linguistic world. Up until now it was thought that human beings had a universal grammar, a language instinct – a theory put forward by Chomsky, Pinker and others. Without going into the mechanics of it Everett came up with an alternative hypothesis arguing that language is, like the bow and arrow, a tool to solve a common human problem: the need to communicate efficiently and effectively. In other words he believes that language is shaped not by biology but by culture.
Needless to say his work has created furious debate among linguists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary biologists.
“My claim is that there is no such thing as ‘just a language’ and that the homogenizing efforts of Pinker and others, focusing principally on theories that stretch and chop grammars to fit preconceived notions of what a language should look like do the science of linguistics a serious disservice. Each language in this sense, while sharing cognitive and communicative principles in common with all other languages spoken by Homo sapiens, is unique. This is why it is such a tragedy when a language dies — we don’t just lose a grammar. We lose an entire way of thinking and talking about the world; we lose a set of solutions to the problems that beset us all as humans.”
Now, I am not in a position to argue the case one way or the other, I am not qualified, well read in the subject nor equipped to debate these hypotheses in an articulate manner however, Everetts conclusions do make think of how I speak, we speak, our vocabulary, how we exchange information, explain, describe, imagine, think and articulate, express the world around us and the culture in which we live.
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