Language isn’t innate, Daniel L. Everett argues. It’s a tool that can be reinvented, or lost.
How humans learn language is much more easily accounted for by psychologists than the Chomskyans claim. Surely our brains and bodies have evolved to optimize our language abilities. However, no one supposes that our skill on bikes indicates a “bicycling organ.” Rather, language piggybacks on vocal apparatuses and regions of the brain that evolved for other purposes in our animal forebears. Everett makes a case for language having arisen as a combination of three elements: “Cognition + Culture + Communication.”
“Language: The Cultural Tool,” full of intellectually omnivorous insights and reminiscences about Everett’s years with the Pirahã (which he memorably described in “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes”), is that rare thing: a warm linguistics book. The quiet smile perfusing his writing is all the more admirable given the criticisms he has endured from linguists wedded to the He-jumping school of thought. This nonconfrontational quality has its disadvantages, though. Everett covers Chomskyan syntax largely in passing, referring to it as “highly technical” and choosing not to dwell on its machinery, even to the extent I have here. This saps his argument of a certain force. To the uninitiated, “technical” alone may sound innocuous and even attractive, not like something to argue against for 300 pages.