Daniel Everett had lived in the Amazon jungle for years with the Pirahãs (pronounced pee-da-HANS) and had grown fluent in their language, when his
entire understanding of their culture was overturned by a salad. He had hungered
for some fresh lettuce after a steady diet of fish and wild game, and had asked
the missionary plane to bring him a salad the next time they flew in to drop him
some supplies. As he sat enjoying his greens, a Pirahã man walked by and peered
at his bowl. "Pirahãs don't eat leaves," he said. "This is why you don't speak
our language well. We Pirahãs speak our language well and we don't eat leaves."
Everett was floored by this summary judgment. He'd demonstrated his mastery
of their language again and again. And what did his culinary taste have to do
with his linguistic skill? When he finally understood what the man...
Beyond the Book
Everett vs. Chomsky
In Don't Sleep, There are Snakes
, the elephant in the roomor rather,
the elephant in the Amazonian jungleis the noted American linguist, Noam
Chomsky. To put it far too simply, Chomsky and Everett are feuding over which
has supremacy in linguistics: genetics or culture, nature or nurture.
Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, which has dominated linguistics for
the last forty decades, hypothesizes that the human brain comes pre-equipped
with a set of rules for constraining language. The theory arose from a question:
how can a child who is acquiring language learn what is ungrammatical, if the
only speech she hears is grammatical and correct? Adults do not teach language
to children by speaking improper...