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Language: The Cultural Tool
Language: The Cultural Tool
Daniel L. Everett
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012
368 pp., 22.0

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The Language Hoax
The Language Hoax
John H. McWhorter
Oxford University Press, 2016
208 pp., 15.99

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Joel Heng Hartse


Language in the Wild

How and why languages differ.

The influential linguist M. A. K. Holliday, in his 1978 book Language as a Social Semiotic, included a diagram labeled "the domains of language and their relation to other fields." Halliday separates the study of language into four sub-categories: language as system, language as art, language as knowledge, language as behavior. Depending on which of these is most of interest, any one person who studies "language" may find him- or herself in a number of fields Halliday identifies: sociology, anthropology, literary studies, human biology, psychology, and many others.

Halliday's own theory of language, known as systemic-functional linguistics (SFL), considers the function of language to be just as important as its form, and places great emphasis on social context in understanding how language works. It could be considered a more realistic and helpful way of viewing language than the "traditional" linguistic perspective (associated with Noam Chomsky) that language as a cognitive system ("competence") is the proper object of study, while actual utterances made by people ("performance") are not.

As a language educator who admittedly finds himself in the "language as behavior" camp, I've been trained to see Chomsky's neglect of performance in favor of competence as an oversight. But I think most non-specialists remain unaware of SFL, or of any alternative perspective in modern linguistics. The best-known popularizers of linguistic theory in recent years tend to be cognitive scientists who, while not denying the sociocultural aspects of language, focus on language from what we might call a more "scientific" perspective.

There is nothing misguided about studying, say, biological mechanisms or the cognitive processes underlying language, but I am disappointed by the way language, like some other areas of scholarly investigation, can be ceded in the popular imagination to "Science," that magical secular religion that can "explain" language as soon as it gets some really good brain scans of people thinking about different words for "snow" or whatever.

Of course, neuroscientists and other scientists are doing good work. What I lament is that a sociocultural approach to language has not been of more note in the public eye. Where's the Halliday, the Bakhtin, the Vygotsky, the Bourdieu? In addition to the cognitive, where is the social? What's needed is an accessible view of language that accounts for both. Books by Daniel Everett and John McWhorter offer some hope: though their positions differ, both are the work of linguists who recognize the importance of engaging the relationship between language and culture for a popular audience.

Everett's Language: The Cultural Tool is a welcome and significant book for popular linguistics, because he calls explicitly for more emphasis on sociocultural aspects of language while maintaining that the study of language is a rigorous science. Everett has specifically challenged Chomsky's notion of "language universals" through his studies of the language of the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest, which he discusses in his earlier general-audience book, the riveting Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

Because Pirahã language and culture are unique, Everett insists that culture has an important influence on language, and that, because cultures are different, not all languages are in fact ultimately the same. Everett further argues that there is no need to talk of an innate "language instinct," since language is simply one skill among many which humans learn. We figure out how to make or use tools from the people around us, and we develop the tools—including language—we need for our environments. Thus, different cultures develop different languages for their specific needs, Everett suggests, and Language describes this process in detail.

The first section of the book, "Problems," deals with the human need to communicate in order to survive, arguing that not only human biology but also unique needs relating to the formation of community and social interaction eventually led to the development of language. Everett reviews arguments for language as a "biological tool" that "just grows," similar to our arms or legs, but posits an alternative view of language as a cultural tool, "based on learning and general cognitive abilities."

The problem of communication is solved not by language generally (the emergence of which Everett attributes to evolutionary processes, drawing an interesting if speculative analogy between early uses of fire and of language), but by languages in particular. In the second section, "Solutions," Everett argues that while there are many similarities among languages, they may represent "common solutions to common problems" rather than giving evidence for an "innate universal grammar." Everett builds a convincing case that "culture, cognition, and communication are the shaping forces of our languages." He describes the many building blocks of language, from the human vocal apparatus to phonemes to morphemes to syntax to meaning, using examples from Pirahã and other languages.

The book's third section, "Applications," discusses the influence of culture on language, arguing that culture can influence not only surface features of a language but even the deep structure of grammar. One fascinating example includes the Amazonian language Wari', in which speakers attribute quotes to other people in order to report the others' possible thoughts or mental states—and do so without using verbs. This claim, like some others Everett makes about Amazonian languages, is difficult to grasp at first, but makes sense when considered in connection to his overall argument that grammar is influenced by culture. Everett refers to this as a Darwinian view of cultural and linguistic differences, since languages and cultures are different "to fit particular environmental needs."

The final section, "Variations," discusses linguistic diversity and revisits explanations of cultural influences on language, arguing that the many variations in language are of value to humanity as a whole, and ends with a plea for preserving linguistic diversity and endangered languages.

The marketing punchline of Language is "a guy who lived with an Amazonian tribe proved Chomsky was wrong," but anyone who has taken up a branch of language study outside theoretical linguistics already knows Chomsky is "wrong" in the sense that the field he created doesn't view the actual use of language as interesting or important. Everett convincingly marshals evidence from his own experience and other areas of language study to show how important the social and cultural aspects of human society are in making language what it is.

In 2012, John McWhorter's generally positive New York Times review of Language lamented that Everett emphasizes the influence of culture "to a point that misrepresents what human languages are." McWhorter's The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language is a book-length argument against this emphasis, most obviously aimed at Guy Deutscher's 2010 book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.

McWhorter aims to debunk a popular belief about language that can be attributed in part to authors like Deutscher: popular neo-Whorfianism, or the belief that language shapes thought and culture so much that the languages we speak affect the ways in which we see the world in very significant ways. In its strongest form, this idea has been rejected by language scholars for decades, but in the hands of journalists, for whom McWhorter reserves particular ire, the Whorfian notion that language "determines" how we think seems to have run rampant and led to silly and unhelpful assertions. (One need only to think of the canard that "Eskimos" have hundreds of words for snow—which, of course, depends on what one means by "Eskimos" or "snow" or even "words.")

McWhorter's book, like Everett's, is the work of an eminent linguist with a ready stable of examples and illustrations on the tip of his tongue, and The Language Hoax is as broad and multifarious as Language, though much shorter, wittier, and more relentlessly devoted to a single point: namely, the grammatical features of the language we speak have very little to do with our cultures, "worldviews," or the way we think.

McWhorter begins by questioning whether "studies show" that language greatly influences thought, pointing out that many useful experiments have been done showing infinitesimal differences in perception between speakers of various languages, but that this does not mean that there are major differences of worldview that can be attributed to, for example, the fact that the word "bridge" has a different gender in German than it does in Spanish.

Culture and language are indeed mutually implicated, according to McWhorter, but not in the sense that language evolves due to environmental or cultural needs; rather, he argues that linguistic practices are influenced by culture. He mentions that some languages use the same word for eat, drink, and smoke, but it begins to feel absurd to speculate about what exactly the cultural "reason" for this would be, and how it would differ from the reason speakers of other languages use different words for these actions. Not only are these linguistic differences essentially random, says McWhorter, but even when studies allegedly show a link between grammar and culture—he cites Yale economist Keith Chen's assertion that the Chinese language's lack of a marked future tense leads the Chinese to save money for an unknown future—there is no reason to believe that it is grammar and not, in fact, simply culture that accounts for cultural difference.

In the book's most entertaining and illuminating passage, McWhorter does a fine-grained reading of a single sentence he once heard a teenager utter: "Dey try to cook it too fast, I'm-a be eatin' some pink meat!" Taking neo-Whorfianism to its logical conclusion, each English word is analyzed with a view to whether it says something unique about the "worldview" of the speaker. Why did he omit "if" from the sentence? Why does English have the pronoun they? Why does English distinguish pink from red, or meat from a live animal? As the questions pile up, the idea that each of these presumably random differences between English and other languages has some enormous cultural and cognitive significance begins to seem silly.

Indeed, McWhorter points out that English is rarely scrutinized in this way, but the languages of small tribes or others whom English speakers, perhaps rightly, wish to valorize or redeem ("these people are not savages—they make sense") often are over-interpreted. The problem, he argues, is that this is unrealistic and insulting: the unique grammatical-cultural aspects of other languages are usually discussed in relentlessly positive terms (if the Chinese are thrifty, are some other languages wasteful?), and McWhorter cautions that there is a soft chauvinism in the fascination of neo-Whorfians with the alleged uniqueness of certain languages. It is, he writes, as if English speakers are saying, "What's good about you is that you are not like me," which is hardly valorization. McWhorter ends his book with an affirmation of the traditional linguistic view that languages have many surface differences but are ultimately "variations on being the same."

While McWhorter's positioning of The Language Hoax as a "manifesto" can make the book feel like a bit of a one-note samba, with each chapter offering a different version of the same argument, one gets the sense that its singular focus is necessary. Language-and-culture studies are frequently blown out of proportion by the media, and a lot of sloppy thinking about language use and its effects persists. (Sorry to break it to you, but language advice from the likes of Orwell and Strunk & White is not seen as particularly accurate or helpful by linguists.) McWhorter's ultimate message—that language variation is worth study in its own right—is a worthwhile one in an era in which minority languages have been deemphasized (some would say killed, even) in favor of the world's larger and more powerful tongues.

One need not side solely with McWhorter or Everett on the relationship of language and culture to appreciate what their work does for the popular understanding of language. If anything, both books show that the tangle of culture, language, and meaning is too important to limit to the purview of disinterested "science," but a worthy pursuit for philosophy, sociology, psychology, and many other disciplines like those laid out by Halliday in his 1978 diagram. As Everett says in his introduction, "science is usually better than myths at explaining. But the myths arguably capture the grandeur of their subject better than science." Whether you agree with Everett's contrast of "science" and "myth" as two opposing methods of "explanation," his argument is, I think, meant to transcend both: science and myth, and indeed all human attempts at meaning-making, are underwritten by language, ultimately the most useful and wondrous gift we have.

Joel Heng Hartse is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll (Cascade Books) and co-author of Perspectives on Teaching English at Colleges and Universities in China (TESOL Press).

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