On Tuesday September 11, Daniel Everett, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University, presented his study of linguistic anthropology. His lecture in large part was a critique of the theory of universal grammar, which states that all human beings share core grammar. According to this theory, the and that the ability to learn grammar is a genetically hard-wired in the human brain. “Grammar” does not refer to the techniques or structure but rather concepts that every language has a word for. Therefore, all languages share certain properties because all humans share general properties of the mind, parts of the environment and universal experiences. More specifically, the theory states that all humans understand numeracy, language, incest taboo and color discrimination.
However, Everett spent seven years living in the heart of the Amazon among the Pirahã people who he claims provide evidence that disproves universal grammar. Quite simply, Everett claims that the Pirahãs do not count or have any words for numbers or colors. He emphasized that lack of these supposedly “universal” properties does not mean that the Pirahãs are cognitively incapable, but rather that they do not have a need for such words in their daily lives. Humans are toolmakers and language is one of our most complex tools, but it is nonetheless, a tool. As such, any given language will be situated within its social context whether that is in Connecticut or in the Amazon jungle. The grammar of each language reflects its speakers’ culture and society.
At its core, language is the solution to the fundamental social problem- the need to communicate. Human beings are naturally social animals and have an instinctual desire to communicate with one another. Furthermore, all humans have a theory of mind, which enables them to see other humans as intentional agents. In other words, every human recognizes that other humans have minds that work alike. There is no universal grammar or genetic capabilities but rather the product of the desire to communicate, human cognition and culture- language.
Daniel Everett’s study of the Pirahã people is a revolution for linguistic anthropology. In disproving the universal grammar theory, he is not denying the existence of universality in the human experience, but rather proposing that universality exists on a different, broader scale. Although there are no universal grammatical properties in all languages, all humans share the desire to communicate with one another. This basic human need to communicate is where the universality exists. Humans across the globe live in different environments, have different cultures, different languages but the human experience is, at its core, social- and that is what unites us all.
However, Daniel Everett’s findings are far from incontestable. In fact, the Brazillian government, acting under the pretense that Everett used the Pirahã to get wealthy, has banned him from returning to the country until further notice. Noam Chomsky, the creator of the universal grammar theory, even called Everett a “charlatan” which is as close to an academic slur as there is. Many other scholars have followed in Chomsky’s footsteps accusing Everett of everything from exploitation to falsifying data. In response, Everett is releasing a documentary about his experience among the Pirahã as he learned about their society, including their language of spoken word, whistling and humming. As far as his actual presentation, Everett was funny and engaging, although I would have liked to hear more about his actual experience with the Pirahã rather than just a theoretical analysis. The way he presented his subject matter was so theory-based that it was difficult to critically evaluate. In fact, it is virtually impossible to prove Everett wrong since he is the only anthropologist to have lived among the Pirahã. By the same token, he cannot truly verify his data either because his video footage and documentation inevitably cater to his theory. That being said, it is up to viewer to decide whether Daniel Everett is truly a sincere, inquisitive scholar or a money-grabbing fraud.