Language: The Cultural Tool, a book worth talking about

The linguist and former missionary Daniel Everett takes readers on a fascinating journey to discover how the first conversation began.

Language: The Cultural Tool
Daniel Everett
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In July 1954, a British medical journal recorded the extraordinary case of a baby chimpanzee that had been raised like a human child for two years alongside the similarly aged son of an American psychologist.

Gua, reported The Family Doctor, had been "treated not as an animal pet, but as a member of the family - dressed exactly like the child, nursed and trained in the same way, rewarded, scolded or punished in the same way".

At the end of the first year, it was clear that the chimp was out front in the smart stakes; she had learnt to use cups and spoons ahead of her human rival, was walking upright and could recognise 20 commands, including "Open the door" and "Shake hands". The slow-learning chump of a child, meanwhile, was struggling to recognise even three.

What Gua could not do, however, was learn to speak.

By early in the second year, while the chimpanzee was pretty good at acrobatics and scaling stuff, it had become apparent which of the two would be climbing to the top of the food chain. The child "began to use words and phrases quite spontaneously, and to imitate the actions of its elders, in a way that the animal could never manage".

More useful data might be harvested by approaching the question from the opposite direction - would a child raised without human contact lack all speech? Pesky ethics, however, has always prevented such a fascinating experiment, though there are plenty of rural myths about children who have been raised by a varied menagerie of animals. In each case the child, usually discovered before the age of 10, has been reported as being unable to speak, or to learn, human language, while variously growling, hissing or chirping, according to the vocal preference of the adoptive parental species.

At the heart of these myths and a number of ultimately futile experiments with chimpanzees lies the question that has divided the field of linguistics and almost certainly always will do: is language learnt, or is the skill inherent and hard-wired in human beings - and only human beings - as maintained by Noam Chomsky, the pre-eminent linguist, and his legions of devotees?

Within that debate nestles the far more intriguing question of how language happened. Think about it. Did one particular ancient man simply wake up one morning and, instead of announcing his intention to go out hunting and gathering with the usual all-purpose "Ugg", stand up and, to his surprise and that of everyone else's in the cave, say "I'm just popping out to clobber a mammoth for dinner. Anyone fancy joining me?"

Probably not. After all, he would have drawn blank looks all round. Being the first to talk would be a bit like inventing the telephone: what's the point if there's no one to call?

Yet likewise, how could language have evolved as a collaborative, committee-driven Good Idea - and across the globe, more or less simultaneously?

For one thing, how would you get the members of any such committee to the table? Come to that, how would you express the very idea?

Even Chomsky has dodged this question. "It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to 'natural selection'," he once wrote, "so long as we realise that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena."

The reality is that, while such speculation is a great deal of fun, the best linguistics brains in the world have never, and can never, come up with a scenario for the birth of language any more or less convincing than the Bible's Tower-of-Babel explanation for how and why our small planet has no fewer than 6,000 different languages confounding our attempts to all get along like one big happy family.

Which is not to say that an army of academics does not persist in this fruitless quest, which has a parallel in the search for an explanation of how the Earth and all its multitude of crawling, swimming, floating, flying, walking and, yes, talking, things came to be. Theories of how the planet and life itself began are no more than that - just theories, which can never be proved.

Likewise language and, in the same way that astrophysicists continue to argue among themselves (Big Bang, 13.75 billion years ago, almost certainly on a Thursday, or continual expansion and contraction, a neat theory of perpetual existence that dodges the impossible requirement for the spatially constrained human brain to envisage either infinity or a time before time?), so linguists continue to toss "what-if" grenades at one another.

One of the academic grenadiers lurking around the edges of the debate is Daniel Everett, something of an anomaly in the field in as much as he entered the discipline through the back door, when he set out in the 1970s as a born-again Christian missionary determined to convert the Pirahã tribe in Amazonia. Instead, they converted him and, in the throes of losing his religion and finding an alternative spiritual meaning in their simple way of life, while mastering their language he discovered a linguistic anomaly that appeared to undermine Chomsky's creed of hard-wiring. It was, as one Harvard cognitive scientist told The New Yorker in 2007, "a bomb thrown into the party".

In 2005, Everett had published his thinking in the journal Current Anthropology. In "Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã", he argued that the language of his indians lacked "recursion", a grammatical capacity that Chomsky and chums had declared to be the cornerstone of all language.

In an interview in 2007, Everett explained recursion thus: "Chomsky has claimed that the fundamental tool that underlies all ... creativity of human language is recursion: the ability for one phrase to reoccur inside another phrase of the same type. If I say 'John's brother's house', I have a noun, 'house', which occurs in a noun phrase, 'brother's house', and that noun phrase occurs in another noun phrase, 'John's brother's house'."

Everett, a former Chomsky disciple, conceded that recursion was "an interesting property of human language". But what if, as he had, one stumbled on a language that lacked such recursion? Did Chomsky's house of grammar fall down?

Such heretical thoughts have led Everett to Language: The Cultural Tool, a fascinating journey through the spoken word, written by a man who has made the equally impressive journey from single-minded missionary to theory-upending academic - a remarkable voyage of self-discovery rewarded first with his appointment to the chair of languages, literatures and cultures at Illinois State University, and latterly by his elevation to the position of Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University, Massachusetts.

The book is, as the author has it, a first-ever "weaving together [of] the findings of modern linguistics, psychology, and anthropology to flesh out the meaning of the hypothesis that language is an artefact, a cultural tool".

It doesn't matter that the average reader will struggle with this concept of language as artefact - something of a conceptual conceit, given the clear impossibility of unearthing language alongside a pot shard on an archaeological dig. This is a book to enjoy, to learn from and to allow thoughts to spiral up and away from, like smoke curling up through the branches of the Amazon canopy.

Take, for instance, Everett's entertaining analogy of the invention of the bow and arrow. As well as his inability to communicate with his neighbours, ancient man had another problem: how to get enough protein to stay alive when most of the available protein was not only averse to being eaten but was also capable of moving far faster than he could.

The solutions were the spear, the slingshot and, finally, the bow and arrow (all of which, of course, also proved handy when it came to inter-human conflict resolution). But how did human beings manage to exist long enough on a low-protein diet to get around - singly, separately and more or less simultaneously - to inventing such vital tools?

The answer is "Who knows?". Today we can no more figure out the process by which such weapons came to be than we can solve the riddle of how the first language committee was called to order. One problem we face is that for millennia bows and arrows were made exclusively of biodegradable material - and artefactual developments such as metal or flint arrowheads tell us no more about the origins of this weapon system than the Rapier surface-to-air missiles the British government is planning to deploy around London to protect the Olympics. Likewise, language has left no fossil record.

Gestated in the soggy, isolated swamps of the Amazon, where he spent many years, Everett's paddle through the tributaries of language is a fascinating and thought-provoking adventure, part detective story, part history and part philosophy of life, and is never dry nor inaccessible.

It culminates in a convincing appeal for the preservation of the diversity of language - an issue of considerable concern here in the Arab world, where English has become the entrenched tool of business and education. Diversity of tongues on Earth, says Everett, "is one of the greatest survival tools that human beings have ... each language is a cognitive tool for its speakers and comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture".

And the loss of any language, he says, is "a terrible human and scientific tragedy ... when a language is lost all of us lose the knowledge contained in that language's words and grammar".

Jonathan Gornall is a former staff writer for The National.