The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
ENO's production of La Boheme is a triumph,
That eminent linguist Noam Chomsky once called Daniel Everett a charlatan and there is no doubt that he is a linguistic maverick.
His previous book, an anecdotal account of life as an evangelical Christian missionary among the Piraha people of the Amazon rainforest, contradicted the view of Chomsky, Pinker and others that language capability is hard-wired into the human psyche.
Though unconvinced by Chomsky's arguments, I did not feel that Everett had made his case adequately and looked forward to a more reasoned approach to the question.
Yet this book is as unsatisfactory as his earlier volume because, ironically, there is not enough about the Piraha in it.
The bulk is a comprehensive overview of the arguments and, in those terms though expressed in the same idiosyncratic manner as his earlier book, it does a reasonable job.
He quotes from many authorities on all sides of the question and, at the very least, plants the seeds of doubt about Chomskyan orthodoxy in the reader's mind.
But it is only in the concluding section that he engages with why he feels that language, rather than being innate, is as much a tool as a hand-axe or the ability to light fires.
If language is in fact a tool, this ought to tell us a great deal about who we are and what makes us different from other primates.
Everett quotes approvingly the statement of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky that, "Like tool systems, sign systems (language, writing, number systems) are created by societies over the course of human history and change with the form of society and the level of its cultural development."
If the Pirahas don't count above two and have no conditional clauses in their language, since their whole culture is predicated on the immediately observable, this is not because they are primitive or stupid but because their culture requires these limitations.