Everett (Dean of Arts and Sciences/Bentley Univ.; Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, 2008, etc.) challenges Noam Chomsky, arguing that grammar and language are learned.
The author begins and ends with images of fire, calling language “the cognitive fire.” After some obligatory comments about how he intends to be fair with his opponents, he soars off into his thesis about how language is a tool—one that we acquire rather than inherit genetically, rather like a bow and arrow. Throughout, Everett endeavors to leaven his otherwise heavy narrative with anecdotes (especially about his years living with the Amazonian Pirahã) and with allusions to music and to popular culture—among others, he looks at Phil Spector, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Mick Jagger and the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The author dismisses the idea that there’s a “language gene,” and he explains linguistic terms like Zipf’s Law, discreteness, contingency and recursion. He finds ways to chip chinks in Chomsky’s armor and dives gleefully into the controversy surrounding Benjamin Whorf, who maintained that our languages circumscribe our thoughts. Everett closely examines the Pirahã, noting that they have no words for numbers or colors, but mothers nonetheless know how many children they have. He pauses now and then for more extensive explanations of related topics, like cross-cultural ideas of kinship, noting that our (American) terms for first and second cousin (and the notion of “removed”) are disappearing because we no longer use them. The author grieves at the loss of any language, takes a shot or two at public schools for their failure to teach about dialects and notes how each language makes its speakers happy.
Readers’ eyes will sometimes sparkle with new insight, sometimes glaze at the dense exposition.