[FUNKNET] Query on structural properties

Daniel Everett dlevere at ILSTU.EDU
Sat Dec 19 02:11:12 UTC 2009

Dear All,
The remarks by Tom and Joan are, as one would expect, extremely useful and interesting. 
Let me address myself first to Tom.  Tom suggests that my research program is Whorfian. In fact, it is the opposite of Whorf. Whereas Whorf, Sapir, Herder, and others raised the question of the degree of influence that grammar could have on cognition, my program, suggested a bit by Boas and Sapir, is mainly concerned with how culture can affect grammar. As far as I know, Whorf never concerned himself with the effects of culture on grammar. Here is a summary of various positions:
Cognition, Grammar, Culture Connections

Constraint Relationship

Representative Theory

1. cognition  -->     grammar

Chomsky's Universal Grammar

2. grammar   -->      cognition

Linguistic Relativity (Whorf)

3. cognition  -->    culture

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's work on color terms

4. grammar  -->    culture

Greg Urban's work on discourse-centered culture

5. culture    -->  cognition

Long term effects on thinking of cultural restrictions on certain behaviors

6. culture    -->    grammar

Ethnogrammar; individual forms structured by culture


I believe that there are different, yet non-exclusive, relations between culture, cognition, and grammar.  My program, such as it is, falls under number 6. I think that box number one is probably the null set, though it might have something in it that no one has yet discovered. The others are all active and viable connections, each associated with a different research program. I discuss this all in more detail in my book, Don't sleep there are snakes, which is now available in Korean (Courrier), in the UK (Profile) and in the USA (Pantheon and Vintage), and soon to be available in German (February - http://www.amazon.de/Das-glücklichste-Volk-Pirahã-Indianern-Amazonas/dp/3421043078/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259941204&sr=8-3), French, Thai, Mandarin, and Japanese. 

Grammaticalization clearly is relevant in 'freeze framing' various connections, including culture and grammar. Nothing in my own thought or research is incompatible with grammaticalization. It plays a vital role in any complete theory of diachronic or synchronic linguistics. 

Tom's term -  'society of intimates' - has been very helpful to me. The Utes might be a society of intimates. The Pirahas certainly are. So why aren't all societies of intimates grammatically similar? Why doesn't Ute have the characteristics of Piraha or vice-versa? Because no single cultural value is going to be responsible for all the culture-grammar connections one might discover. Culture, like Language, is an abstraction, an idealization. In Everett and Sakel (to appear), we propose a methodology for studying linkage between grammatical chararacteristics and cultural characteristics. One must first identify cultural values, in a non-circular manner, and then identify grammatical phenomena. We then suggest ways of establishing non-circular connections and relations of causality between such pairs. Piraha is not only a society of intimates, but it has a particularly strong value of 'immediacy of experience'. I discuss such issues in more detail in Don't sleep. 

If Piraha has suffered some sort of cultural trauma, e.g. the conquest by Europeans that began in the 16th century, then this certainly could have dramatically affected their culture and its connections with their language/grammar/grammatical constructions. On the other hand, we know that their culture and language today look pretty much like they did in 1784, when the first written records begin to appear. So whatever their culture & language were like before then, that is irrelevant to the fact that they have been in a relative period of stasis since then.  

Diachronic studies and grammaticalization are vital to my program ultimately. This is because I simply want to understand language as well as I can. Because I do not believe in Universal Grammar or much at all in the way of genetic constraints on the shapes of grammars, I have to look to other explanans for similarities between languages of the world. This is in fact the subject of my book, Cognitive Fire: Language as  a Cultural Tool, to appear in late 2010 (Pantheon in the US, Profile in the UK).  
Joan - thanks for the reference!
Ultimately, I see nothing incompatible with anything Tom has said and what I have said. I simply believe that culture plays a larger part than some other linguists do in shaping grammar and other aspects of cognitive life. 

Yesterday, GEO magazine published a large story about my work in German (it will ultimately appear in all 20 languages in which GEO is published). In that story, Chomsky says that it is ridiculous to think that culture could affect grammar because three year olds know nothing/little about culture and much about grammar. That seems false. Much of culture is learned and transmitted nonverbally from birth. Perhaps before birth. I give examples in Everett (2008).

I believe that all humans are born with a similar genetic endowment, encompassing intelligence, body size, etc. I am not 'searching for primitive languages'. I am interested in learning more about the culture-grammar interface as one part of the symbiosis between grammar, culture, and cognition. 


Everett, Daniel L. and Jeanette Sakel. forthcoming. Linguistic Fieldword: A Student Guide. Cambridge University Press, Red Series.

Everett, Daniel L. 2008. Don't sleep there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle. Vintage Departure Series.
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