drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

Machines Like Us interviews: Daniel L. Everett

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

In this fascinating interview linguistics professor Daniel L. Everett discusses his groundbreaking and controversial work with the Pirahã people in the Amazon basin, and shares his startling conclusions about human language and cognition.

Daniel L. Everett is a linguistics professor best known for his study of the Amazon Basin's Pirahã people and their language. He currently serves as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He previously held the position of Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois, taught at the University of Manchester and is former Chair of the Linguistics Department of the University of Pittsburgh.

Dan is 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. The book was runner-up for the 2008 Award for Adult Non-fiction from the Society of Midland Authors and has just been named a finalist for the 2009 prize. His newest book, "Cognitive Fire: Language as a Cultural Tool" is to appear in 2010 from Pantheon in the US and Profile in the UK. This book further develops an alternative to the view that language is innate, whether as in Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar or Steven Pinker's Language Instinct. Dan argues that language is, like the bow and arrow, a tool to solve a common human problem: the need to communicate efficiently and effectively. His work has created furious debate among linguists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary biologists.

Initially a missionary tasked with bringing Christianity to the Pirahã people, Dan gradually became influenced by the Pirahã's evidence-based manner of living, lost his faith and became an atheist.

Interview conducted by Norm Nason.

MLU: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Dan. Those of us who sit all day in comfortable offices behind computer screens owe you a debt of gratitude for having done the "heavy lifting"; the tough field research. You not only lived among the Pirahã people in Brazil for many years, but were one of the few outsiders to have learned their difficult language. Do you feel that it is necessary to work as close to the original cultural context as possible--and if so, why?

DE: It is vital to study any language as close to the original context as possible, if I am right that language and culture are one symbiotic whole. It is possible to separate a language from its original culture or to have a culture take over various languages. Finding cultural values in language, especially grammar, and linguistic forms that affect culture, requires some knowledge of, preferably direct observation of, the culture and language together in as non-disturbed a state as possible. Of course, both culture and language are always changing, so we cannot say for certain that this or that feature of either is 'original', but we can detect internal signs of change and reconstruct how things might have matched up in language and culture the way that they have.

I should say, because some people have simplified my views, that I understand both the terms 'culture' and 'language' to be abstractions. There is no concrete entity that is, say, 'American culture' or 'American English' even. When I talk about culture and language, I am talking about specific values and specific grammatical structures or regularities and what sorts of evidence might help us understand what relationship, if any, exists between the values and structures.