Language: The Cultural Tool by Daniel L Everett - review by Patrick Wilcken

Patrick Wilcken

Words to the Wise

Language: The Cultural Tool


Profile Books 320pp £14.99

After decades of research among the Pirahã – a small indigenous group of people in a remote southern region of the state of Amazonas in Brazil – American linguist Daniel Everett found unlikely fame. What began as missionary work, under the auspices of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, continued academically with a doctorate at the University of Campinas and then a career as a linguistics professor in the United States and, for a time, the UK. In 2005, dissatisfied with conventional approaches, Everett posted on his website an article entitled ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã’, which was later published in the journal Current Anthropology. The paper reignited the old debates about whether human capacity for language is innate or learned, and whether its underlying principles are universal or culturally constrained. 

The article provoked not just an avalanche of academic rebuttals but substantial press coverage, with the New Scientist reporting that, according to Everett, Pirahã represented ‘the final nail in the coffin for Noam Chomsky’s hugely influential theory of universal grammar’. A largely sympathetic full-length feature in the New Yorker by

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RLF - March