Review of Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett

Oct 07 2014

In Language: The Cultural Tool, Daniel Everett argues that language is a tool developed by humans to communicate, in the same way that we have developed other tools to help us cook, grow plants and drive around. He reviews the diversity of languages around the world, and most especially those he has studied as an anthropologist in the field, and shows that their diversity reflects their origins as tools to solve specific local problems.

Most importantly, and controversially, he argues against the idea of a universal grammar or inbuilt language ability (a la Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker) showing that the evidence does not support this and the reality is that it is not necessary to explain our language skills and behaviours, which develop solely to solve local problems of communication (although not denying that the origins of the human race and perhaps most languages can be traced back to a very few humans).

The long-standing belief that there is a human ‘language instinct’ comes from the observation that all humans speak languages and there are common characteristics across all the diverse languages that exist in the world. He argues that language is developed and shared culturally, that language demonstrates the general human capacity for learning, and that many important aspects of language are shaped by factors outside our brains and in our immediate environment and culture.

Thus, language is a tool to solve the problems of communication of ideas and building social cohesion within distinct ‘groups’. Thus, the diversity of language gives us a rich resource for understanding the diversity of humans, and should be preserved for this reason alone.

As he points out, culture is hard to define, but it’s clear that it has a huge role in shaping language. And language is one of the defining things that makes us human, something that can’t be said for most human ‘tools’. However, that doesn’t mean that language stands alone, and anything we say or utter comes laden with a set of cultural assumptions and values that are implicit in the words we speak (and the voice and body language that accompanies the words).

Daniel Everett discusses in detail the problems that language solves (of communication and social cohesion) before discussing how it solves them (in different ways for different cultures that reflect the differences in their local problems). He points out that the Zipf law, which shows that the length of a word is determined by the amount of information it carries, shows how linguistic function shapes linguistic form. He cites some languages that have few if any prepositions because there is no local need for them. He also cites languages that don’t need numbers (because the concept is not useful). Sometimes ideas that are simple in one language are very difficult (and long) to express in another - take the simple German word schadenfreude. Daniel Everett would argue that this word is more locally useful in Germany than in the UK (even though it’s still long). There are many other examples of very complex ideas (or seemingly complex from one point of view) being expressed very simply in another language. Similarly, languages often leave out words that are not necessary, because the local culture assumes that you know (such as common verbs or even more complex ideas).

Word orders reflect local differences too. Many of the world’s languages use the order Subject Object Verb (in fact, the majority) and English is unusual in using the order Subject Verb Object. Other research has shown that the Subject Object Verb order is more common because this is  the order in which gestures would be used to communicate the same idea. [Other orders such as Verb Object Subject and Object Verb Subject are also seen in some languages but much less frequently.] Everett argues that languages using different orders (such as English) are solving other problems to do with signal versus noise in language and the sounds that make up the language.

In later chapters, Daniel Everett argues that cultures and languages interact synergistically, and that most definitions of culture treat culture as a static thing, whereas in reality it is constantly adapting and evolving (as we all know). Also, he discussed how language as a tool is not always precise. In fact, there is value in the vagueness and ambiguity of language, that helps us communicate with others more effectively (in the sense of getting what we want out of any interaction).

In the final section of the book, Daniel Everett addresses the relationship between language, culture and thinking, quoting Benjamin Whorf who once said that, “Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it”. There is clear evidence, through looking at the diversity of languages, that language (or is it really culture?) shapes the way we think. For example, research on colour shows that the words used for colour influence the way colours are perceived. As with other aspects of language, this boils down to the fact that language is a tool we use to categorise and label the world in ways that are useful to us. The categories and labels thus depend on their cultural usefulness and can be different in different cultures.  For example. age is important in Indonesia, and the words used to describe siblings therefore reflect their relative age. In the UK, gender is important, so the words used to describe siblings focus on gender.

The example of the Piraha’s language and its lack of numbers is startling to many, but in their environment, numbers are simply not useful. As Daniel Everett puts it, a mother may not know how many children she has, but she knows the names of every one of them, where they are and how they feel. What is the use of knowing the total count?

Language: The Cultural Tool is a fascinating read for anyone interested in linguistics, culture, semiotics or anthropology. It’s central theme is the (always underestimated) role of context in shaping our lives, through culture and environment. Language is an incredible human tool, enabling us to create great literature and debate profound ideas about the world. However, ultimately language is a tool that helps us get on in the world by creating a bond and communication medium for us to share our lives with those around us.


Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel Everett

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