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Language: The Cultural Tool

3.64  ·  Rating Details ·  217 Ratings  ·  38 Reviews
For years, the prevailing opinion among academics has been that language is embedded in our genes, existing as an innate and instinctual part of us. In this bold and provocative study, linguist Daniel Everett argues that, like other tools, language was invented by humans and can be reinvented or lost. He shows how the evolution of different language forms—that is, differen ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published December 11th 2012 by Vintage (first published January 1st 2012)
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Dan Everett is the linguist responsible for probably the most famous fieldwork in the discipline's recent history. The 2005 paper he wrote subsequently then set off the most acrimonious in-fighting among linguists in years.

Why? Well, it's all to do with the origin of language – a problem so notoriously intractable that the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all debates on the subject back in 1866. For a long time the best theory to explain it has been the one put forward in the 1960s by a group
Sep 25, 2012 Sheri rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
After reading and reviewing Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, I emailed Dan Everett to ask him for answers to the questions I raised in my review. His response was that I should read his newest book, Language The Cultural Tool. And so I have. I would advise at least glossing over that review as this one is in part a commentary on my previous thoughts.

Everett’s style is very approachable and the book is a clean read, good for the novice. In fact, I think my biggest complaint is that Everett glosses t
Nov 17, 2013 Carmen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People interested in linguistics
A very informative book about language. Is it genetic or a tool? Everett says tool. He talks a lot about Amazonian tribes. I can tell he doesn't like fat people. I also slightly question his attitude toward women.
Everett gibt in dem Buch ein paar interessante Einblicke in die Kultur und Sprachen einiger Amazonas-Indianerstämme. Dies ist allerdings nur ein Nebeneffekt. Eigentlich ist das Ziel des Buches, die wechselseitige Beeinflussung von Sprache und Kultur aufzuzeigen. Hierbei geht es ihm insbesondere darum, die nativistischen Linguisten um Chomsky und seine Universalgrammatik zu widerlegen. Auch geht er auf die Sapir-Whorf-Theorie eun, nach der die Sprache unser Denken bestimmt.
Gelingt ihm sein Vorha
Aug 05, 2012 Ilya rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
Ever since the times of Wilhelm von Humboldt, linguists have known that each language has its own unique set of grammatical rules. What can these rules be? In the 1950s a German linguist said, "Languages can differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways." Noam Chomsky disagrees; he believes that the grammar of each human language is a variation of the same universal grammar, which would be apparent to a Martian linguist, just as it would be apparent to a Martian biologist that a ...more
Mar 30, 2013 Mark rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Did not like this, seemed to be a biased rambling argument, long on obvious generalities about the importance of culture and short in facts about how the universality of language might emerge anew in the human cognitive system.
Jan 04, 2015 James rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
A decent, readable book on the nature of language that succeeds in exploring a lot of interesting ideas about how language is acquired and used. Unfortunately, though, Everett's argumentation is often unfocussed and discursive, and I often found myself wondering what point he was really trying to make in this book. His main target throughout seems to be "nativism" - the idea that language, or the cognitive capacities that lead to language, is somehow innate - but the target of his invective is l ...more
aPriL does feral sometimes
There is interesting information in the book, and about every 75 pages or so, the author makes an observation that is thrillingly cool. He studied Brazilian jungle tribes for their culture and language, and Everett includes some of the results which are naturally fascinating. The Piraha, for example, do not have words for colors or numbers. He makes a case that despite not having the words, the tribe can think, to some degree, using concepts involving counting or colors. The author also makes th ...more
Peter Aronson
Apr 16, 2016 Peter Aronson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(Three and a half stars, rounded up for the author's enthusiasm for the subject.) There is often something dense and ponderous about books about linguistics -- maybe it's the meta project of using language to discuss language, maybe linguists just like to talk -- and this book is no exception. This book in part seems to have been written as an answer to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, to argue against a 'built-in', genetic ability language and for language b ...more
Dec 25, 2015 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-own, non-fiction
Heel interessant boek over waarom Chomsky het mis heeft volgens de auteur. Erg toegankelijk geschreven!
Mar 15, 2017 Devin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: linguistics
The only reason I gave it 4 stars and not five was because of all the damn typos. Get a better editor Dan!

Excellent read that blows to pieces the major linguistic theories of the past 60 years.
Mikael Lind
I was not entirely persuaded with this book. I enjoy the writings of Chomsky, but, like Everett, I think the time is ripe for some good alternatives to his views within the field of cognitive linguistics. And, like Everett, I mainly believe language to have originated as a cultural tool, albeit we also use language for thought (a fact that Chomsky very often stresses). The communicative side of language and language as an enhancement of thought processes are two sides of the same coin that can't ...more
Jul 03, 2013 Steve rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well, I stopped reading this book, got sidetracked, but now I've come back to it and it finishes well. Everett, a linguist who has worked for years with tribes in Brazil, explains scholarly and technical concepts and research well. He tells good stories that illustrate his ideas about language. He seems fair to those he disagrees with, and rather than contentious he seems engaged and thoughtful. He strongly believes that language develops as a cultural tool, a resource for solving problems. He d ...more
Nick Turner
Sep 25, 2012 Nick Turner rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: imperialism, advocacy, now
It's good to strive. It's good to reach for the sky. It's good to fail. Is this work a good failure?

The author adopts a sceptical tone towards other theories but begs the indulgence of readers for his own by presenting meagre scientific evidence in support. It's not wrong for a thesis to ask an effort of readers to understand it, but if the author is unwilling or unable to find convincing examples perhaps too much effort is required from readers to support the thesis. Although there are no footn
Sam Shepherd
I'll admit I didn't agree fully with his basic theory, and I do think there is something in nativist approaches. I suspect, infuriatingly, that language is something with innate roots in the human brain, but onto these roots complexity and diversity are built by culture. In the chapter where he attempts to pick apart the nativist view I got quite cross because he kept referring to scientists not finding a language gene (when language could easily develop from the interplay of several genes) and ...more
Oct 24, 2012 Nick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Daniel Everett says it clearly in the title: language is a cultural tool. Then he says it again throughout the book. And he repeats the message every time he provides relevant, interesting and fairly convincing evidence from a wide range of cultures and contexts from the familiar to the exotic. So who is he trying to convince? Not me. I don't need convincing. I know where he's coming from, and I would even go as far as to say that he has over-emphasised the communication aspect of language. Lang ...more
Oct 19, 2012 Scotchneat rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
Everett is not a Chomsky proponent. Instead, he argues that we invented language and we can lose it. He combines anthropology, structural analysis, linguistics and field study to bolster his argument.

I'm not a linguist, but I'm not sure I'm convinced of his central argument in the end. I agree that language is heavily influenced by culture and socialization, but there seems to be SOMEthing we have that is like an innate capacity to develop it.

Nevertheless, the stories of the people he visits are
Jun 17, 2012 John rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved Daniel Everett's previous book, "Don't Sleep There are Snakes." This new one is less personal about Everett's experiences with the Amazon's Pirahã people, and more general about language, evolution, and human development. He delves into a huge arena of subjects, from the structure of stores, organization of grammar, and the formation of words. His thoughts on the powerful hand of culture in determining language as well as languages influence on culture are filled with valuable insights. ...more
Oct 19, 2014 Mishehu rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Terrific read, and a compelling one. Everett mounts a very strong case against the prevailing linguistic wisdom re language universals (a la Chomsky), arguing that language is an acquired cultural tool rather than a hard-wired instinct. I'm not sure I buy his argument in its entirety, but at the least it does have me questioning the basis of my own very strong prior adherence to the universal grammar hypothesis. Everett is a field linguist, whose research focuses on the speakers of one particula ...more
Apr 21, 2014 Daniel rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting, though I found it rather oddly structured as I read through it. Then again, language has such broad and fascinating connections that structure in this book is hardly what one would read it for. The ideas offered within are a lovely balance to Noam Chomsky's over-used explanations of grammar and linguistics. I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the Amazonian languages which are so far removed from those of Europe and East Asia, they serve to broaden the reader's conceptualisat ...more
Jessica Healy
So my first assessment pretty much held: I find this book DUBIOUS.

I couldn't read without making notes on the parts I disagreed with, because otherwise I couldn't move past thinking YOU ARE SO WRONG!. I had intended to write a much more detailed review, but frankly, I'm kind of exhausted. So let me sum up with a quote from Northrop Frye that I have found very useful in the past:
"Anything that makes a functional use of words will always be involved in all the problems of words"...
And there are
Feb 11, 2013 George rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting read that provokes thinking on language. The author uses his extensive field experience working and living with isolated tribes in the Amazon jungle to demonstrate his thesis that language is acquired through exposure as a child and language evolves with cultural influences and not as some inherent language organ in the brain as Chomsky proposes. The book is laid out as a series of chapters that attempt to address various aspects of the argument. The book is written with non-lingu ...more
Jul 10, 2012 D'mac rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For anyone who has ever wanted to understand what it means for language to be a cultural tool and to have a symbiotic, inter-influential (if you will) relationship with cultures. Most people hold many misconceived notions about language's and language acquisition thanks, in part, to the pervasive dogma that follows Chomsky and his universal grammar theory. This book examines this in depth. Everett has an enjoyable, easy-to-read voice with personal anecdotes, engaging stories about small language ...more
Oct 27, 2016 Avery rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Extremely uneven, with long, dry rehashes to explain Linguistics 101 and the author's pop culture references to any readers hailing from distant realms of the earth. Sometimes this is so weird it's actually kind of amusing -- like when he explains why he's making a MacGyver reference. But a good bit of the book has to be skimmed. The fieldwork anecdotes are cool and do make this worth reading, but only barely.
Steve Nay
Sep 04, 2013 Steve Nay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Often technical and at times dry, this book gives a fascinating look into the role of language as a tool--a product of culture as well as a shaper of culture. The author describes the Piraha people and language in detail, which opened my mind to new ways of thinking about language, cognition, and the role of culture in influencing communication.
Maged Zakher
A great read. Everett succeeds in touching on very interesting themes and topics. He, however, fails at times to support his arguments with academic objective reasoning. All in all, a wonderful read that is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. Highly recommended to all who are interested in language, communication, and culture.
Dec 26, 2014 Miki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quite an interesting book, presenting the most prominent linguistic theories as well as the very peculiar culture and language of the Amazonian tribes the author had the chance to study and live with. If you had any doubt, you'll find here convincing arguments and evidence of the nature of human language as a very powerful cultural tool.
Kevin Varney
The book was interesting in places, but I found it hard work. I often found myself flicking forward to the end of the chapter to see how many pages there were to go. If you are interested in social science you may enjoy it more.
Oct 15, 2012 Adrienne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
A bit of an argument with Chomsky, but skim the technical bits and enjoy how he finds the soul in language.
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Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University. He has held appointments in linguistics and/or anthropology at the University of Campinas, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Manchester, and Illinois State University.

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“The word ‘mind’ is a way of talking about the cognitive functions of the brain that we do not fully understand physiologically at the present.” 0 likes
“What we do know from genetic studies so far is that there are genes – the best example, widely discussed in the literature, being FOXP2 – that are important to language. Yet finding a gene that is important to language is not the same as identifying a gene for language.” 0 likes
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