How speech is produced

how speech and language affect learning and how speech language and communication supports learning
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Published Date:03-07-2017
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inma am mpt ’s sginlbb a nmalege s e stso r HARPER’S MAGAZINE/AUGUST 2016 6.99 THE ORIGINS OF SPEECH t gngeb s ymohc m fel wo to by sk wa inin he in wa of gh th on pi rt ba ru on is rtE S S AY THE ORIGINS OF SPEECH In the beginning was Chomsky By Tom Wolfe Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or turn all—or almost all—the pillow heads in the even heard of a performance like this before. In e fi ld rock-hard. just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Even before receiving his Ph.D., Chomsky was Pennsylvania graduate student— a student, in his invited to lecture at Yale and the University of twenties—had taken over an entire field of study, Chicago. He introduced a radically new theory linguistics, and stood it on its head of language. Language was not and hardened it from a spongy so- something you learned. You were called “social science” into a real born with a built-in “language or- science, a hard science, and put his gan.” It is functioning the moment name on it: Noam Chomsky. you come into the world, just the At the time, Chomsky was still way your heart and your kidneys finishing his doctoral dissertation are already pumping and filtering for Penn, where he had completed and excreting away. his graduate-s chool course work. To Chomsky, it didn’t matter But at bedtime and in his heart of what a child’s first language was. hearts he was living in Boston as a Whatever it was, every child’s lan- junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, guage organ could use the “deep structure,” “uni- and creating a Harvard-level name for himself. versal grammar,” and “language acquisition de- This moment was the high tide of the “scien- vice” he was born with to express what he had to tical fi ization” that had become fashionable just say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth after World War II. Get hard Whatever you do, in Eng lish or Urdu or Naga mese. That was why— make it sound scientic fi Get out from under the as Chomsky said repeatedly—c hildren started stigma of studying a “social science” By now speaking so early in life . . . and so correctly in “social” meant soft in the brain pan. Sociolo- terms of grammar. They were born with the lan- gists, for example, were willing to do anything guage organ in place and the power ON. By the to avoid the stigma. They tried to observe and age of two, usually, they could speak in whole sen- record hour-by-hour conversations, meetings, tences and generate completely original ones. The correspondence, even routes taken by individu- “organ” . . . the “deep structure” . . . the “univer- als, and make the information really hard by sal grammar” . . . the “device”—as Chomsky ex- converting it into algorithms full of calculus plained it, the system was physical, empirical, symbols that gave it the look of mathematical organic, biological. The power of the language certainty. And they failed totally. Only Chom- organ sent the universal grammar coursing sky, in linguistics, managed to pull it off and through the deep structure’s lingual ducts to Tom Wolfe is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. This is an excerpt from his new book, The Kingdom of Speech, out this month from Little, Brown. Illustrations by Darrel Rees ESSAY 25provide nutrition for the LAD, which everybody and visage turned a challenger’s power of rea- in the field now knew referred to the “language son to jelly. acquisition device” Chomsky had discovered. Young charismatic figures are not a rare Two years later, in 1957, when he was breed. In new religious movements they have twenty-eight, Chomsky pulled all this togeth- tended to be the rule, not the exception: Jo- er in a book with the opaque title Syntactic seph Smith of the Mormons . .. Siddhartha Structures—and was on the way to becoming Gautama, the Buddha . . . Scientology’s David the biggest name in the history of linguistics. Miscavige, a “prodigy” and L. Ron Hubbard’s He drove the discipline indoors and turned it handpicked successor . . . the Báb, forerunner upside down. There were thousands of lan- of the Baha’i faith . . . the Jehovah’s Witness- guages on earth, which to earthlings sounded es’ Charles Taze Russell . . . and Moishe like a hopeless Babel of biblical proportions. Rosen of Jews for Jesus. Likewise in warfare: That was where Chomsky’s soon-to-be-famous Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a seventeen-year-old Martian linguist came in. A Martian linguist enlisted man taking over an infantry company arriving on earth, he often said . .. often . . . in the midst of battle . . . Joan of Arc, a French often  . .. would immediately realize that all peasant girl who becomes an army general and the languages on this planet were the same, the greatest heroine in French history—at the with just some minor local accents. And the age of nineteen . .. Napoléon Bonaparte, who ONLY WEARILY COULD CHOMSKY ENDURE TRADITIONAL LINGUISTS WHO THOUGHT FIELDWORK WAS ESSENTIAL AND WOUND UP IN PRIMITIVE PLACES, EMERGING FROM THE TALL GRASS ZIPPING THEIR PANTS UP Martian arrived on earth during almost every by the age of twenty-nine had led victories Chomsky talk on language. against French Royalist forces as well as the Only wearily could Chomsky endure tradi- Austrians and the Ottoman Empire . .. Alex- tional linguists who thought fieldwork was es- ander the Great, who had conquered much of sential and wound up in primitive places, emerg- the Hellenistic world before his thirtieth ing from the tall grass zipping their pants up. birthday  . .. William Wallace, Guardian of They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Dar- Scotland, who at twenty-seven led the Scots win’s day coming back from the middle of no- to victory over the British at the Battle of where with their sacks full of little facts and Stirling Bridge. buzzing about with their beloved multi-language Charismatic leaders radiate more than simple u fl ency. But what difference did it make, know- cond fi ence. They radiate authority. They don’t ing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it tell jokes or speak ironically, except to clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude rebuke—as in “Kindly spare me your ‘originali- of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, ty.’” Irony, like plain humor, invariably turns not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate re- upon some indulgence of human weakness. ality, the only true objects of knowledge. Be- Charismatic figures show only strength. They sides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the refuse to buckle under in the face of threats, in- e fi ld” was. He was relocating the field to Olym- cluding physical threats. They are usually pus. Not only that, he was giving linguists per- prophets of some new idea or cause. mission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t Chomsky’s idea of the “language organ” creat- have to leave the building at all, ever again ... ed great excitement among young linguists. He no more trekking off to interview boneheads in made the field seem loftier, more tightly struc- stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you tured, more scientic fi , more conceptual, more had plumbing. on a Platonic plane, not just a huge heaped-up Chomsky had a personality and a charisma leaf pile of the data fieldworkers brought in equal to Georges Cuvier’s in France in the from places one never necessarily heard of be- early 1800s. Cuvier orchestrated his belliger- fore ... linguistics would no longer mean work- ence from sweet reason to outbursts of perfect- ing out in the field among more breeds of Na— ly timed and rhetorically elegant fury. In con- er—indigenous peoples  . .. than one ever trast, nothing about Chomsky’s charisma was dreamed existed. Thanks to Chomsky’s success, elegant. He spoke in a monotone and never linguistics rose from being merely a satellite or- raised his voice, but his eyes lasered any chal- biting around language studies and became the lenger with a look of absolute authority. He main event on the cutting edge.... The number wasn’t debating him, he was enduring him. of full, formed departments of linguistics soared, Something about Chomsky’s unchanging tone as did the numbers of fieldworkers. Fieldwork 26 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016was no longer a requirement, however, and more words themselves, the specic s fi ounds and how linguists than dared confess it were relieved not they were fitted together, the mechanics of the to have to go into the not-so-great outdoors. greatest single power known to man . . . How Now all the new, Higher Things in a linguist’s do people do it? . . . and their eyes opened wide life were to be found indoors, at a desk . . . look- as if nobody had ever thought of it before. ing at learned journals with cramped type in- What would eventually become thousands of stead of at a bunch of faces in a cloud of gnats. articles and conference papers began chunder- In a rare recorded instance of someone ing forth. confronting him over this business of a language One of the most revealing examples of Chom- organ, Chomsky finessed his way out of it con sky’s power was when Roger Wescott, the linguist brio. The writer John Gliedman asked Chomsky the Question. Was he saying he had found a part of human anatomy that all the anatomists, internists, surgeons, and pathologists in the world had never laid eyes on? It wasn’t a question of laying eyes on it, Chomsky indicated, because the language organ was located inside the brain. Was he saying that one organ, the lan- guage organ, was inside another organ, the brain? But organs are by definition discrete entities. “Is there a special place in the brain and a particular kind of neuro logical structure that comprises the language or- gan?” asked Gliedman. “Little enough is known about cognitive systems and their neurological basis,” said Chomsky. “But it does seem that the rep- resentation and use of language involve specific neural structures, though their nature is not well understood.” It was just a matter of time, he sug- gested, before empirical research substan- tiated his analysis. He appeared to be on the verge of the most important ana- tomical discovery since William Harvey’s discovery of the human circulatory sys- tem in 1628. Soon Noam Chomsky’s reign in linguis- tics was so supreme, it reduced other lin- guists to filling in gaps and supplying foot- notes for Noam Chomsky. As for any random figure of note who persisted in challenging his authority, Chomsky would summarily dismiss him as a “fraud,” a “liar,” or a “charlatan.” He called B. F. Skinner, Elie Wiesel, and “the American intellec- tual community” frauds. He called Alan Dershowitz, Christopher Hitchens, and Werner William Stokoe of Gallaudet University (for the Cohn liars. He pinned the charlatan tag on the deaf), and the anthropologist Gordon Hewes famous French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. summed up two decades of writing, separately, about Not really very nice—but at least he woke sign language by joining forces and editing Lan- everybody in the field up. All at once academ- guage Origins— with the proud claim that they had ics, even anthropologists and sociologists, dis- ll fi ed in a gap in Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. covered the subject of linguistics. Chomsky had And on they came, linguists and anthropolo- provided them the entire structure, anatomy, gists intent upon shoring up Chomsky’s great ed- and physiology of language as a system. ic fi e with evidence . . . the gestural theory . . . the But there remained this bafifl ng business of big brain theory . . . the social complexity theory . . . g fi uring out just what it was —the creation of the and . . . and . . . ESSAY 27 Source photograph of Noam Chomsky © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News . . . and more and more scholars sat at their the magnitude of Émile Zola’s J’Accuse in 1898, desks just like junior Chomskys trying to during the Dreyfus affair in France . . . when solve the mysteries of language with sheer Georges Clemenceau, a radical socialist (later b rainpower. The results were not electrifying. prime minister of France—twice), turned the Nevertheless, Chomsky had brought adjective “intellectual” into a noun: “the intel- the field back to life. lectual.” At that point “the intellectuals” re- placed the old term “the clerisy.” Zola, Anatole In February of 1967—bango—Chomsky France, and Octave Mirbeau were the intellectu- shot up clear through the roof of their little als uppermost in Clemenceau’s mind, but he by world of linguistics and lit up the sky . . . with no means restricted that honorific to writers. a 12,000-word excoriation of America’s role in Anyone involved in any way in the arts, politics, the war in Vietnam entitled “The Responsi- education—e ven journalism—w ho discussed the bility of Intellectuals.” The New York Review Higher Things from an at least vaguely savory so- of Books, the most fashionable organ of the cialist point of view qualie fi d. So from the very New Left in the Vietnam era, published it as a beginning the intellectual was a hard-to-d ene, fi in special supplement. fact rather blurry, figure who gave off whiffs—at The piece delivered a shock beyond even least that much, whiffs—of Left-aware politics Chomsky’s never-modest expectations. From the and alienation of some sort. very first paragraph to the last, he tore into the Chomsky proved to be perfect for the role, and United States’s “capitalist” rulers, its supine press, not just because of his academic charisma. More its by turns apathetic and pliable important was timing. He knew intellectuals. He rolled the coun- how to exploit a tremendous try over like a big soggy log, ex- stroke of luck: another war—this posing the rot rot rot rot on the one in a little country in South- underside. He accused the United east Asia. It was a small war com- States of “vicious terror bombings pared to World War II, but the of civilians, perfected as a tech- jolt it gave universities and col- nique of warfare by the Western leges in America was just as se- democracies and reaching their vere. The draft had been rein- culmination in Hiroshima and stated. Male students rose up in Nagasaki, surely among the most protest and the girls tagged along unspeakable crimes in history.” with them and faculty members And Vietnam? “We can hardly avoid asking sang along with them through every last bar of ourselves to what extent the American people their anthem, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” bear responsibility for the savage American as- (to be replaced two years later with “Give Peace sault on a largely helpless rural population in a Chance”). In 1967 tremendous pressure, social Vietnam, still another atrocity in what Asians pressure, began to build up among the intellectu- see as the ‘Vasco da Gama era’ ”— meaning als to prove they were more than spectators in imperialist—“of world history. As for those of us the grandstand cheering the brave members of who stood by in silence and apathy as this catas- the Movement on. The time had come to prove trophe slowly took shape over the past dozen you were an “activist,” i.e., a brave intellectual years—on what page of history do we find our willing to leave the ofc fi e, go to the streets, and proper place? Only the most insensible can es- take part in antiwar demonstrations. The pres- cape these questions. . . . sure on figures like Chomsky, who was only “It is the responsibility of intellectuals,” he thirty-eight, was intense. And he did his part, said, “to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, left the building, and marched in the most at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass publicized demonstration of all, the March on over without comment. Not so, however. For the the Pentagon in 1967. He proved he was the real modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.” thing. He got himself arrested and wound up in This was an angry god raining fire and brim- the same cell with Norman Mailer, who was an stone down not merely upon worldlings com- “activist” of what was known as the Radical mitting beastly crimes but also upon the Chic variety. A Radical Chic protester got anointed angels who had grown soft, corrupt, himself arrested in the late morning or early and silent to the point of complicity with the afternoon, in mild weather. He was booked and very forces of Evil it is their sacred duty to pro- released in time to make it to the Electric Cir- tect mankind from. cus, that year’s New York nightspot of the cen- It was this rebuke of the intellectuals that tury, and tell war stories. Chomsky cofounded turned “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” into an organization called Resist and got himself more than just a provocative essay by an emi- arrested so many times that his wife was afraid nent linguist. It became an event, an event on MIT would finally get tired of it and can him. 28 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016She began studying linguistics herself, formally, radical Left, if not an outright Communist. so that she might teach and at least keep bodies But he routinely denounced the Soviet Union and souls together in the family. and Marxism–Leninism as well as capitalism No one seemed to realize it, but the anti- and the United States. He was above their war movement had brought out in Chomsky tawdry battles. An angry god was speaking some real-enough political convictions from from a higher plane. his childhood, ideas long since dried up and Chomsky’s audacity and his exotic Old irrelevant—one would have thought. Chom- World, Eastern European slant on life were sky was born and raised in Philadelphia, but things most intellectuals found charming, his parents were among tens of thousands of since by then, 1967, opposition to the war in Ashkenazic Jews who fled Russia following Vietnam had become something stronger than the assassination of Czar Alexander II in a passion . .. namely, a fashion, a certic fi ation 1881. Jewish anarchists were singled out that one had risen above the herd. This set off (falsely) as the assassins, setting off waves of what economists call the multiplier effect. the bloodiest pogroms in history. Chomsky’s politics enhanced his reputation as Anarchism had been a logical enough reac- a great linguist, and his reputation as a great tion. The word “anarchy” literally means “without linguist enhanced his reputation as a political rulers.” The Jewish refugees from Russian racial solon, and his reputation as a political solon hatred translated that as not merely no more inflated his reputation from great linguist to EVEN IN ACADEMIA IT NO LONGER MATTERED WHETHER ONE AGREED WITH NOAM CHOMSKY’S SCHOLARLY OR POLITICAL OPINIONS OR NOT . .. FOR FAME ENVELOPED HIM LIKE A GOLDEN ARMATURE czars ... but no more authorities of any sort ... no all-around genius, and the genius inflated the public ofc fi ials, no police, no army, no courts of solon into a veritable Voltaire, and the verita- law, no judges, no jailors, no banks—no ble Voltaire inflated the genius of all geniuses money—no financial system at all . .. in short, no into a philosophical giant . . . Noam Chomsky. government ... and no social classes, either. The Even in academia it no longer mattered dream was of a land made up entirely of com- whether one agreed with Chomsky’s scholarly munes (not terribly different from the hippie or political opinions or not . .. for fame envel- communes of the United States in the 1960s). oped him like a golden armature. A dream it was ... a dream ... and talk talk The superlatives came pouring forth from talk it was, and endless theory theory theory, 1967 on. In 1979 a Sunday New York Times until—¡milagroso ¡maravilla—more than half review of Chomsky’s Language and Responsi- of a major nation, Spain, was taken over by an- bility (Paul Robinson’s “The Chomsky Prob- archist cooperativas during the first years, lem”) began: “Judged in terms of the power, 1936–1938, of the Spanish Civil War ... when range, novelty and influence of his thought, the Loyalists, as they were known, were in pow- Noam Chomsky is arguably the most impor- er. In 1939 General Francisco Franco and his tant intellectual alive today.” In 1986, in the forces crushed the Loyalists in one of their last Arts & Humanities Citation Index, which strongholds, Barcelona, leading to the memora- tracks how often authors are mentioned in ble gob-of-guilt-in-your-eye cry, “Where were other authors’ work, Chomsky came in you when Barcelona fell?” eighth  . .. in very fast company . .. the first Noam Chomsky, all ten years of him, was in seven were Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aris- Philadelphia when Barcelona fell. He was so totle, the Bible, Plato, and Freud. The worked up about it that it was the topic of his Prospect–Foreign Policy world thinkers poll for first published article . .. for the student news- 2005 found Chomsky to be the number-one paper of the Deweyite progressive school he intellectual in the world, with twice the poll- went to . .. a piece in which he denounced ing numbers of the runner-up (Umberto Eco). Franco as a fascist. His political outlook— In the New Statesman’s 2006 “Heroes of Our anarchism—appears to have been set, fixed Time” listings—the heroes being mainly forever, at that moment. Or perhaps the word fighters for justice and civil rights who had is pre-fixed . .. pre-fixed in a shtetl in Russia been imprisoned for the Cause, such as Nel- half a century before he was born. Then, at son Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize winner thirty-eight years old, he laced “The Responsi- (1993) who had served twenty-seven years of a bility of Intellectuals” with so much Marxist life sentence for plotting the violent over- lingo that people took him to be part of the throw of the South African government, and ESSAY 29another Nobel winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, ceaselessly, at an astonishing rate . . . 118 books, who was under house arrest in Myanmar at with titles such as Manufacturing Consent: The the time— Chomsky came in seventh. His ar- Political Economy of the Mass Media (coauthored rests were of the token variety that seldom by Edward S. Herman) . . . Hegemony or Surviv- caused the miscreant to miss dinner out. But al: America’s Quest for Global Dominance . . . his status made up for the never-lost time. A Prot o fi ver People: Neoliberalism and Global Or- New Yorker profile of Chomsky in 2003 enti- der  . . . Failed States (very much including the tled “The Devil’s Accountant” called him United States): The Abuse of Power and the As- “one of the greatest minds of the twentieth sault on Democracy . . . an average of 1.9 books century and one of the most reviled.” In 2010 per year . . . 271 articles, at a rate of 4.3 per the Encylopaedia Britannica put him on the year  . . . innumerable speaking engagements, which finally got him out of the building and onto airplanes and before podiums far away. At the same time his output of linguis- tic papers continued apace, climaxing in 2002 with his and two colleagues’ theory of recursion. Recursion consists, he said, of putting one sentence, one thought, inside another in a series that, theoreti- cally, could be endless. For example, a sentence such as “He assumed that now that her bulbs had burned out, he could shine and achieve the celebrity he had always longed for.” Tucked inside the one thought beginning “He assumed” are four more thoughts, tucked inside one an- other: “Her bulbs had burned out,” “He could shine,” “He could achieve celebri- ty,” and “He had always longed for celeb- rity.” So five thoughts, starting with “He assumed,” are folded and subfolded inside twenty-two words . . . recursion . . . On the face of it, the discovery of recursion was a historic achievement. Every language depended upon recursion—every lan- guage. Recursion was the one capability that distinguished human thought from all other forms of cognition . . . recursion accounted for man’s dominance among all the animals on the globe. Recursion . . . it was not just a theory, it was a law—just like Newton’s law of grav- ity. Objects didn’t fall at one speed in most of the world . . . but slower in Australia and faster in the Canary Islands. Gravity was a law nothing could break. Likewise, re- cursion . . . it was a newly discovered law of life on earth . . . recursion . . . it was the sort of thing that could lift one up to a roster in their book The 100 Most Influential plateau on Olympus alongside Newton, Coper- Philosophers of All Time, along with Socrates, nicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein— Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Epictetus, Noam Chomsky. St. Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, Da- vid Hume, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Hei- By 2005, Noam Chomsky was flying very degger, Sartre . . . in other words, the greatest high. In fact, very high barely says it. The man minds in the history of the world. This wasn’t was . . . in . . . orbit. He had made over an entire fast company, it was a roster of the immortals. e fi ld of study in his own likeness. He had dis- In his new role as an eminence, Chomsky covered and, as linguistics’ reigning authority, hurled thunderbolts at malefactors down below, decreed the Law of Recur— 30 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016OOOF—right into the solar plexus—a of phonetics and phonology when he wrote his 13,000-word article in the August–October fateful paper on the Pirahã’s cultural restraint for 2005 issue of Current Anthropology entitled Current Anthropology. “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cog- In his twenty-two years as an off-and-on fac- nition in Pirahã” by one Daniel L. Everett. Pi- ulty member, he had written three books and rahã was apparently a language spoken by sev- close to seventy articles for learned journals, eral hundred—estimates ranged from 250 to most of them about his work with the Pirahã. 500—members of a tribe, the Pirahã (pro- But this was his first bombshell. It was one of nounced Pee-da-hannh), isolated deep within the ten most cited articles in Current Anthro- Brazil’s vast Amazon basin (2,670,000 square pology’s fifty- plus-year history. miles, about 40 percent of South America’s The blast set off no Ahahhs within the field, entire landmass). Ordinarily, Chomsky was however. Quite the opposite. Noam Chomsky bored brainless by all those tiny little languag- and his Chomskyites were the field. Everett es that old-fashioned flycatchers like Everett struck them as a clueless outsider who crashes were still bringing back from out in “the field.” the party of the big thinkers. Look at him Ev- But this article was an affront aimed straight erett was everything Chomsky wasn’t: a rugged at him, by name, harping on two points: first, outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy red- this particular tiny language, Pirahã, had no dish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish recursion, none at all, immediately reducing hair. He could have passed for a ranch hand or Chomsky’s law to just another feature found a West Virginia gas driller. But of course He BY 2005, NOAM CHOMSKY WAS FLYING VERY HIGH. IN FACT, VERY HIGH BARELY SAYS IT. THE MAN WAS ... IN ... ORBIT. HE HAD MADE OVER AN ENTIRE FIELD OF STUDY IN HIS OWN LIKENESS in most languages; and second, it was the Pi- was an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicably rahã’s own distinctive culture, their unique here in the midst of modern air-conditioned ways of living, that shaped the language—not armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish any “language organ,” not any “universal computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open grammar” or “deep structure” or “language ac- shirts. They never left the computer, much less quisition device” that Chomsky said all lan- the building. Not to mention Everett’s personal guages had in common. background . .. he was from a too small, too re- It was unbelievable, this attack—because mote, too hot—it averaged one hundred de- Chomsky remembered the author, Daniel L. Ev- grees from June to September and occasionally erett, very well. At least twenty years earlier, in hit 115—too dusty, too out-of-it California the 1980s, Everett had been a visiting scholar at town called Holtville, way down near the Mex- MIT after working toward a Sc.D. in linguistics ican border. His father was a sometime cowboy from Brazil’s University of Campinas (Universi- and all-the-time souse and roustabout. He and dade Estadual de Campinas). He was a starstruck Everett’s mother had gotten married in their 1 Chomskyite at the time. He had an ofc fi e right teens and broke up when Everett was not yet across the hall from Chomsky himself. In 1983 two years old. When he was eleven, his mother Everett received his doctorate from Campinas af- was in a restaurant staggering beneath a tray ter writing his dissertation along devout Chom- full of dirty dishes when she collapsed with a skyan lines, and he didn’t stop there. In 1986 he crash and died from an aneurysm. rewrote the dissertation into a 126-page entry in His father returned from time to time and the Handbook of Amazonian Languages. It was tried to do his best for his son. His “best” con- very nearly an homage to Chomsky. Now that sisted of the lessons of life he taught him, such he had his Sc.D. he took periodic breaks in his as taking the boy, who was fourteen at the work with the Pirahã to teach at Campinas, at time, to a Mexican whorehouse to lose his vir- the University of Pittsburgh as chairman of the ginity ... and then banging on the whore’s door linguistics department, and at the University of and yelling to his son, “Jesus H. Christ, what’s Manchester in England, where he was professor keeping you?” . .. it being his, Dad’s, turn next. Helpless, hopeless, the boy went with the flow 1 He was. Everett began his academic career in linguis- into the loose louche lysergic life of teenagers in tics as a full-fledged Chomsky acolyte. His earliest work the 1960s. He had just swallowed some LSD in a aims to apply the Chomskyan model to Pirahã and Methodist church—wondering what it would be make excuses for when it didn’t quite fit. It took years like to experience acid zooms amid the curlicued for him to realize that his adherence to Chomskyan be- liefs was preventing him from deciphering Pirahã. decorations of the sanctuary—when he came ESSAY 31upon a beautiful girl named Keren, about his who had preserved a civilization virtually un- age, with raven hair and ravishing lips. He fell changed for thousands, godknew-how-many so madly in love—what did it matter that she thousands, of years. also had a willpower as blindingly bright and They spoke only in the present tense. They unbending as stainless steel? had virtually no conception of “the future” or She straightened him out very fast. She turned “the past,” not even words for “tomorrow” and out to be a real Methodist. Her mother and father “yesterday,” just a word for “other day,” which were missionaries. She made a convert out of Ev- could mean either one. You couldn’t call them erett in no time. Like Everett’s own parents, he Stone Age or Bronze Age or Iron Age or any and Keren got married in their late teens. Keren of the Hard Ages because the Ages were all revved him up to an evangelical Methodist, and named after the tools prehistoric people made. they resolved to head out into the world as mis- The Pirahã made none. They were pre-toolers. sionaries, like Keren’s parents. They underwent They had no conception of making something several years of intensive linguistic training at today that they could use “other day,” meaning the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, founded tomorrow in this case. As a result, they made by a popular late-nineteenth-century evangelist, no implements of stone or bone or anything Dwight Moody, and the Summer Institute of else. They made no artifacts at all—with the Linguistics, headed by a later evangelical Chris- exception of the bow and arrow and a scraping tian, Ken Pike. These were tough, rigorous acade- tool used to make the arrow. So far no one has mies, with no fooling around. The Summer been able to figure out how the bow and IT DAWNED ON DANIEL EVERETT THAT HE HAD COME UPON A PEOPLE WHO HAD PRESERVED A CIVILIZATION VIRTUALLY UNCHANGED FOR THOUSANDS, GODKNEW-HOW-MANY THOUSANDS, OF YEARS Institute’s program included four months of sur- arrow—an artifact if there ever was one— vival training for life in the jungle, among other became common to the Inuit at the North dangerous terrains, as well as advanced instruc- Pole, the Chinese in East Asia, to the tion in various tribal tongues. The purpose of the Indians—er—Native-born in North America, Moody Institute and the SIL, as the Summer In- and the Pirahã in Brazil. stitute of Linguistics was called, was to produce Occasionally, some Pirahã would sling to- missionaries who could convey to prospective gether crude baskets of twigs and leaves. But as converts the Word—the story of Jesus—in their soon as they delivered the contents, they’d 2 own languages, anywhere on God’s earth. throw the twigs and leaves away. Likewise . . . Everett had turned out to be such a remark- housing. Only a few domiciles had reached the ably adept student, the SIL encouraged him to hut level. The rest were lean-tos of branches see what he could do with the Pirahã, a tribe and leaves. Palm leaves made the best that lived in isolation way up one of the Ama- roofing—until the next strong wind blew the zon’s nearly 15,000 tributaries, the Maici River. whole thing down. The Pirahã laughed and Other missionaries had tried to convert the Pi- laughed and flung together another one . .. here rahã but could never really learn their language, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. thanks to highly esoteric constructions in gram- Pirahã was a language with only three vow- mar, including meaningful glottal stops and els (a, o, i) and eight consonants (p, t, b, g, s, h, shifts in tone, plus a version consisting solely of k, and x, which is the glottal stop). It was the bird sounds and whistles . .. to fool smallest and leanest language known. The Pi- their prey while out hunting. rahã were illiterate—not only lexically but also visually. Most could not figure out what they It took three years, but Everett finally mas- were looking at in two-tone, black-and-white tered it all, even the bird-word warbling, and photographs, even when they depicted familiar became, so far as is known, the only outsider places and faces. In the Pirahã, Everett could who ever did. Pirahã was a version of the see he had before him the early history of Mura tongue, which seemed to have vanished speech and visual deciphering and, miraculous- everywhere else. The Pirahã were isolated ly, could study them alive, in the here and now. geographically. They had no neighbors to No such luck with mathematics, however. The threaten them . .. or change them. It dawned Pirahã had none. They had no numbers, not on Everett that he had come upon a people even 1 and 2; only the loose notion of “a little” and “a lot.” Money was a mystery to them. 2 The Moody Bible Institute and SIL are still in existence. They couldn’t count and hadn’t the vaguest 32 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016idea of what counting was. Every night for in dress, such as it was; not in hairstyles. In fact, eight months—at thei r r equest— Everett had the very notion of styl w e as foreign to them. tried to teach them numbers and counting. Here, now, in the flesh, was the type of soci- They had a suspicion that the Brazilian river ety that Chomsky considered ideal, namely, an- traders, who arrived regularly on the Maici, archy, a society perfectly free from all the rank- were cheating them. A few young Pirahã ing systems that stratie fi d and stultie fi d modern seemed to be catching on. They were begin- life. Well . . . here it is Go take a look If it left ning to do real mathematics. The elders sent at some unlikely hour before dawn, you could them away as soon as they noticed. They catch an American Airlines flight from Logan couldn’t stand children making them look International Airport, in Boston, to Brasília bad. So much for math on the Maici. They and from Brasília, a Cessna floatplane to the had to continue paying the traders with vast Maici River .. . you could see your dream, anar- quantities of Brazil nuts, which they gathered chy, walking . . . in the sunset. from the ground in the jungle. They were Chomsky wasn’t even tempted. For a start, it hunter- ga therers, as the phrase goes, but the would mean leaving the building and going out hunting didn’t do them much good in the riv- into the abominable “field.” But mainly it er trade. They had no clue about smoking or would be a triumph for Everett and a humilia- curing meat. tion for himself, headlined: Because they had little conception of “the Everett to Chomsky: past,” the Pirahã also had little come meet the tribe conception of history. Everett ran that ko ’d your theory into this problem when he tried to tell them about Jesus. Chomsky never willingly “How tall is he?” the Pirahã mentioned Everett by name af- would ask. ter that, nor did he expound Well, I don’t really know, but— upon the Amazon tribesmen ev- “Does he have hair like you?” erybody else in linguistics and meaning red hair. anthropology was suddenly talk- I don’t know what his hair was ing about. He didn’t particularly like, but— want to hear about the Pirahã The Pirahã lost interest in lore that so fascinated other Jesus immediately. He was unreal to them. people, such as the way they said good night, “Why does our friend Dan keep telling us these which was “Don’t sleep—there are snakes.” Crooked-Head stories?” The Pirahã spoke of . anacondas thirty And there were snakes . . themselves as the Straight Heads. Everybody feet long and weighing five hundred pounds, of- else was a Crooked Head, including Everett ten lurking near the banks in the shallows of and Keren—a nd how could a Crooked Head the Maici, capable of coiling themselves around possibly improve the thinking of a Straight jaguars— an d humans— a nd crushing them and Head? After about a week of Jesus, one of the swallowing them whole .. . lancehead pit vipers, Pirahã, Kóhoi, said to Everett politely but whose bite injects a hemotoxin that immediate- firmly, “We like you, Dan, but don’t tell us ly causes blood cells to disintegrate and burst, anymore about this Jesus.” Everett paid atten- making it one of the deadliest snakes in the tion to Kóhoi. Kóhoi had spent hours trying to world  .. . heavy-b odied tree boas that can de- teach him Pirahã. Neither Everett nor Keren scend from the branches above and suffocate ever converted a single Pirahã. Nobody else human beings .. . plus various deadly amphibi- ever did, either. ans, insects, and bats  . . b . lack caimans, which The Pirahã had not only the simplest lan- are gigantic alligators up to twenty feet long guage on earth but also the simplest culture. with jaws capable of seizing monkeys, wild pigs, They had no leaders, let alone any form of gov- dogs, and now and again humans and forcing ernment. They had no social classes. They had them underwater to drown them and then, like no religion. They believed there were bad spirits anacondas, swallowing them whole  . . Br . azilian in the world but had no conception of good wandering spiders, as they are called, if not the ones. They had no rituals or ceremonies at all. most venomous spiders on earth, close to i . t  . . They had no music or dance whatsoever. They golden poison dart frogs— poisonous frogs— had no words for colors. To indicate that some- swollen with enough venom to kill ten human.s  . . thing was red they would liken it to blood or inch-long cone-nose assassin bugs, also known some berry. They made no jewelry or other as kissing bugs because of their habit of biting bodily ornaments. They did wear necklace.s  . . humans on the face, transmitting Chagas’ dis- lumpy asymmetrical ones intended only to ward ease and causing about 12,500 deaths a ye.a . r . off bad spirits. Aesthetics played no part—not nocturnal vampire bats that can drink human ESSAY 33blood for as long as thirty minutes at a time life of the species.’ The Pirahã’s grammar, he while the human victims sleep. argues, comes from their culture, not from any Walking barefoot or in flip-o fl ps at night in Pi- pre-existing mental template.” rahã land was a form of Russian roulette ... and The New Scientist said, “Everett also argues so the Pirahã had learned to be light sleepers. that the Pirahã language is the final nail in Long middle-of-the-night conversations were not the coffin for Noam Chomsky’s hugely inu fl - uncommon, so wary were they ential theory of universal grammar. Although throughout the midnight hours. this has been modie fi d considerably since its origins in the 1960s, most linguists still hold W hatever else it was, Everett’s revelation of to its central idea, which is that the human life among the Pirahã was sensational news in mind has evolved an innate capacity for lan- 2005. He had decided not to publish it in any of guage and that all languages share certain the leading linguistics journals. Their circula- universal forms that are constrained by the tions were too small. Instead he chose Current way that we think.” Anthropology, which was willing to publish the In academia scholars are supposed to entire article, uncut. That took up a third of the think and write at a level far above the ex- August–October 2005 issue and included eight citement of the popular media. But Everett formal comments solicited from scholars around and his Pirahã publicity got so deeply under the world—France, Brazil, Australia, Germany, the scholars’ skin, they couldn’t stand it any WALKING BAREFOOT OR IN FLIP-FLOPS AT NIGHT IN PIRAHÃ LAND WAS A FORM OF RUSSIAN ROULETTE. LONG MIDDLE-OF-THE-NIGHT CONVERSATIONS WERE NOT UNCOMMON, SO WARY WERE THEY THROUGHOUT THE MIDNIGHT HOURS the Netherlands, the United States—all of it to- longer. In 2006, MIT’s cognitive science gether totaling 25,000 words. In Everett’s case, department—not Noam Chomsky’s linguis- two of the scholars, Michael Tomasello and Ste- tics department—invited Everett to give a lec- phen Levinson, were aflfi iated with the presti- ture about the “cultural factors” that made the gious Max Planck Institute. By no means were Pirahã and their language so exceptional. their comments—or any others—valentines. Three days beforehand, a diatribe appeared on They all had their reservations about this and all the Listservs usually reserved for notices that. So much the better. The big academic pre- about talks to the MIT linguistics community, sentation paid off. Radio, television, and the calling Everett a shameless out-and-out liar popular press picked up on it here and abroad. who falsifies evidence to support his claims Germany’s biggest and most inu fl ential maga- concerning the Pirahã and their language. In zine, Der Spiegel, said the Pirahã, a “small hunt- fact, says the writer, Everett is so utterly shame- ing and gathering tribe, with a population of less that he had already written about this only 310 to 350, has become the center of a rag- small Amazonian tribe twenty years earlier in ing debate between linguists, anthropologists his doctoral dissertation ... and is now blithely and cognitive researchers. Even Noam Chomsky and brazenly contradicting himself whenever of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he feels like it. I’m publishing all this ahead of and Steven Pinker of Harvard University, two of time, says the writer, for fear I and others who the most inu fl ential theorists on the subject, are see through Everett’s scam will be “cut off” if still arguing over what it means for the study of we try to expose him at the event itself. In his human language that the Pirahãs don’t use sub- peroration he says, eyeteeth oozing with irony: ordinate clauses.” “You, too, can enjoy the spotlight of mass The British newspaper the Independent ze- media and closet exoticists Just find a remote roed in on recursion. “The Pirahã language has tribe and exploit them for your own fame by none of recursion’s features; every sentence making claims nobody will bother to check” It stands alone and refers to a single event. . . . turned out to be by Andrew Nevins, a young, Professor Everett insists the example of the Pi- newly hired linguist at Harvard. He couldn’t rahã, because of the impact their peculiar cul- hold it in any longer ture has had upon their language and way of Nobody in the used-to-be-seemly field of lin- thinking, strikes a devastating blow to Chom- guistics or any other discipline had ever seen a skian theory. ‘Hypotheses such as universal performance like this before. grammar are inadequate to account for the Pi- Nevins was at work with two other linguists, rahã facts because they assume that language David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues, on an evolution has ceased to be shaped by the social article so long—31,000 words—that it was the 34 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016equivalent of over 110 pages in a dense, schol- In his opening paragraph Colapinto de- arly book. They fought Everett point by point, scribes how he and Everett arrived on the no matter how dot-size the point. The aim, Maici in a Cessna floatplane. Up on the river- obviously, was to carpet bomb, obliterate, every bank were about thirty Pirahã. They greeted syllable Everett had to say about this miserable him with what “sounded like a profusion of little tribe he claimed he had found somewhere exotic songbirds, a melodic chattering scarcely in the depths of Brazil’s Amazon basin. It ap- discernible, to the uninitiated, as human peared online as “Pirahã Exceptionality: a speech.” Colapinto’s richest moment came Reassessment,” by “Andrew Nevins (Har- vard), David Pesetsky (MIT), and Cilene Rodrigues (Universidade Estadual de Campinas)” . . . three linguists from three different universities, Pesetsky pointed out . . . hmmm . . . a bit . . . disingenuous- ly . . . because put them all together . . . they spelled CHOMSKY (MIT). Chom- sky had been David Pesetsky’s dissertation supervisor when Pesetsky got his doctoral degree at MIT in 1983. Five years later he returned as Chomsky’s junior colleague on the linguistics faculty. Chomsky’s close friend Morris Halle, the MIT linguist who back in 1955 had played a major role in bringing him to MIT in the first place, became the dissertation supervisor to Andrew Nevins. Nevins was an MIT lifer. He had enrolled as a freshman in 1996 and had been there for nine years by the time he received his Ph.D. in 2004 . . . and married Cilene Rodrigues, a Brazilian linguist who had been a visit- ing scholar at MIT for several years. What they wrote, “Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment,” couldn’t have seemed more of a Chomsky production had he put his byline on it. The problem was, it had taken the truth squad, namely, Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues, all of 2006 to assemble this prodigious weapon. They planned to submit it to the biggest and most inu fl en- tial linguistics journal, Language, but it could easily take another six or eight months for Language to put it through their meticulous review process. So the trio first decided to post it online on LingBuzz, a linguistics article-sharing site with a large Chomsky following. Their behe- when the linguist W. Tecumseh Fitch arrived. moth doomsday rebuttal appeared there on Fitch was a reverent Chomskyite. He had col- March 8, 2007— laborated with Chomsky and Marc Hauser in —and keeled over thirty-nine days later, April writing the 2002 article proclaiming Chomsky’s 16. On that day, The New Yorker published a discovery that recursion was the very essence of 13,000-word piece about Everett entitled “The human language. Fitch wanted to see the Pi- Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe up- rahã for himself, and Everett had said come ended our understanding of language?” by John right ahead. Fitch had devised a test by which Colapinto, with a subhead reading “Dan Everett he somehow—i t was all highly esoteric and believes that Pirahã undermines Noam Chomsky’s superscientic fi al—could detect whether a per- idea of a universal grammar.” The magazine had son was using “context- free grammar” by film- sent the writer, Colapinto, down to the Amazon ing his eye movements while a cartoon monkey basin with Everett. moved this way and that on a computer screen, Source photograph of Daniel Everett © José Moré/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images Film stills from The Grammar of Happiness courtesy Essential Media and Entertainment ESSAY 35accompanied by simple audio cues. He was ab- not on the same plane. But now the whole ac- solutely sure the Pirahã would pass the test. cursèd world was reading The New Yorker. Dan “They’re going to get this basic pattern. The Pi- Everett, The New Yorker called him, Dan, not rahã are humans—humans can do this.” Daniel L. Everett . . . in the magazine’s eyes he Fitch was very open about why he had was an instant folk hero . . . Little Dan standing come all the way from Scotland into the very up to daunting Dictator Chomsky. bowels of the Amazon basin: to prove that, In the heading of the article was a photo- like everybody else, the Pirahã used recur- graph, reprinted many times since, of Everett sion. At the University of St. Andrews he had submerged up to his neck in the Maici River. left the building a few times to do fieldwork Only his smiling face is visible. Right near him on animal behavior, but never for anything but above him is a thirty-v fi e-or-so-year-old Pi- even remotely like this: to study an alien tribe rahã sitting in a canoe in his gym shorts. It of human beings he had never heard of be- became the image that distinguished Everett fore . . . well beyond the boundary line of civi- from Chomsky. Immersed— up to his very neck, lization, law and order, in the rainforests of Everett is . . . immersed in the lives of a tribe of Brazil’s wild northwest. hitherto unknown Na—er— indigenous peoples With Everett’s help he set up a site for his ex- in the Amazon’s uncivilized northwest. No periments, complete with video and audio equip- linguist could help but contrast that with every- ment. The first subject was a muscular Pirahã body’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up with a bowl-shaped haircut. He high, very high, in an armchair did nothing but look at the float- in an air-c onditioned office at ing monkey head. He ignored the MIT, spic-and-span . . . he never audio cues. looks down, only inward. He “It didn’t look like he was do- never leaves the building except ing premonitory looking,” i.e., to go to the airport to fly to trying to sense what the monkey other campuses to receive hon- might do, Fitch said to Everett. orary degrees . . . more than “Maybe ask him to point to forty at last count . . . and re- where he thinks the monkey is main unmuddied by the Maici going to go.” or any of the other muck of life “They don’t point,” Everett down below. said. And they don’t have words for “left” or Not that Everett in any way superseded “right” or “over there” or any other direction. You Chomsky. He was far too roundly resented for can’t tell them to go up or down; you have to say that. He was telling academics that they had something concrete such as “up the river” or wasted half a century by subscribing to “down the river.” So Everett asked the man if the Chomsky’s doctrine of Universal Grammar. monkey was going upriver or downriver. Languages might appear wildly different from The man said, “Monkeys go to the jungle.” one another on the surface, Chomsky had Fitch has been described as a “tall, patrician taught, but down deep all shared the same man,” very much the old Ivy League sort. His structure and worked the same way. Aban- full name is William Tecumseh Sherman doning that Chomskyan first principle would Fitch III. He is a direct descendant of William not come easily. Tecumseh Sherman, the famous Civil War gen- That much was perhaps predictable. But by eral. But now with Everett in the Amazon basin, now, the early twenty-r fi st century, the vast ma- he was sweating, and his brow was beginning to jority of people who thought of themselves as fold into rivulets between his eyebrows and on intellectuals were atheists. Believers were regard- either side of his nose. He ran the test again. Af- ed as something slightly worse than hapless ter several abortive tries, Fitch’s voice took on “a fools. And the lowest breed of believers was the rising note of panic, ‘If they fail in the recursion evangelical white Believer. There you had Dan- one—it’s not recursion; I’ve got to stop saying iel Everett. True, he had converted from Christi- that. I mean embedding. Because, I mean, if he anity to anthropology in the early 1980s—but can’t get this—’ ” his not merely evangelical but missionary past In the Amazon basin, the tall patrician is re- was a stain that would never fade away com- duced to ejaculations such as “Fuck If I’d had a pletely . . . not in academia. joystick for him to hunt the monkey” Even before the term “political correctness” The New Yorker piece made Chomsky furious. entered the language, linguists and anthropol- It threw him and his followers into full combat ogists were careful not to characterize any— mode. He had turned down Colapinto’s request er—indigenous peoples as crude or simple- for an interview, apparently to position himself minded or inferior in any way. Everett was as aloof from his challenger. He and Everett were careful and a half. He had come upon the sim- 36 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016plest society in the known world. The Pirahã “Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment,” thought only in the present tense. They had a seemed far enough along to make Language’s limited language; it had no recursion, which June 2009 issue— would have enabled it to stretch on endlessly —Everett executed a coup de scoop. in any direction and into any time frame. They had no artifacts except for those bows In November of 2008, a full seven months and arrows. Everett bent over backwards to before the truth squad’s scheduled hecatomb keep the Pirahã from sounding the least bit time for Everett, he, the scheduled mark, did a crude or simpleminded. Their language had its stunning thing. He maintained his mad pace limits—but it had a certain profound richness, and beat them into print—with one of the he said. It was the most difc fi ult language in handful of popular books ever written on the world to learn—but such was the price of linguistics: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, an complexity, he said. Everett expressed nothing account of his and his family’s thirty years with but admiration when it came to the Pirahã. the Pirahã. It was dead serious in an academic But by this time, the early twenty-first century, sense. He loaded it with scholarly linguistic even giving the vaguest hint that you looked and anthropological reports of his findings in upon some—er—indigenous peoples as stone the Amazon. He left academics blinking . . . simple was no longer elitist. The word, by and nonacademics with eyes wide open, star- 2007, was “racist.” And racist had become hard ing. The book broke free of its scholarly bind- tar to remove. ing right away. THERE WERE MORE IMMEDIATE WAYS TO DIE IN THE RAINFORESTS THAN ANYONE WHO HAD NEVER LIVED THERE COULD POSSIBLY IMAGINE. THE CONSTANT THREAT OF DEATH GAVE EVEN EVERETT’S OBSERVATIONS A GRISLY EDGE Racist ... out of that came the modern equiva- Margaret Mead had her adventures among lent of the Roman Inquisition’s declaring Galileo the Samoans, and Bronislaw Malinowski had “vehemently suspect of heresy” and placing him his among the Trobriand Islanders. But Ever- under house arrest for the last eight years of his ett’s adventures among the Pirahã kept blowing life, making it impossible for him to continue his up into situations too deadly to be written off study of the universe. But the Inquisition was at as “adventures.” least wide open about what it was doing. In Ever- There were more immediate ways to die in ett’s case, putting an end to his life’s work was a the rainforests than anyone who had never lived clandestine operation. Not long after Colapinto’s there could possibly imagine. The constant New Yorker article appeared, Everett was in the threat of death gave even Everett’s scholarly ob- United States teaching at Illinois State Universi- servations a grisly edge ... especially compared ty when he got a call from a canary with a Ph.D. to those of linguists who never left their aerated informing him that a Brazilian government ofc fi es in Cambridge, Massachusetts. agency known as FUNAI, the Portuguese acro- In the rainforests, mosquitoes transmitting nym for the National Indian Foundation, was de- dengue fever, yellow fever, chikungunya, and nying him permission to return to the Pirahã ... malaria rose up by the cloudful from dusk to on the grounds that what he had written about dawn, as numerous as the oxygen atoms they them was ... racist. He was dumbfounded. e fl w through, or so it felt. No matter what pre- Now he was convinced that the truth squad cautions you took, if you lived there for three was waging outright war. He began writing a months or more, you were guaranteed infec- counterattack faster than he had ever written tion by mosquitoes penetrating your skin with anything in his life. He didn’t know, but their proboscises’ forty-seven cutting edges, wouldn’t have been surprised to learn, that first injecting their saliva to prevent the punc- Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues were already ture from clotting and then drinking your at work, converting their online carpet bomb blood at their leisure. The saliva causes the on LingBuzz into a veritable hecatomb to run itching that follows. in Language and snuff out Everett’s heresy once Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes instantly be- and for all. came a hit and the biggest wallop in the bread- There was no rushing Language’s editors, basket Noam Chomsky’s hegemony had ever however. They found the piece too long. By suffered. Everett didn’t so much attack Chom- the time the squad rewrote the piece . .. and sky’s theory as dismiss it. He spoke of Language, never in a hurry, edited it . .. and Chomsky’s waning inu fl ence and the mounting the article, bearing the old LingBuzz title, evidence that Chomsky was wrong when he ESSAY 37called language “innate.” Language had not were Chomsky’s way of sentencing opponents to evolved from ... anything. It was an artifact. Just Oblivion. From now on Everett wouldn’t rate the as man had taken natural materials, namely, effort it would take to denounce him. wood and metal, and combined them to create Everett had, as it says in the song, let the the axe, he had taken natural sounds and put dogs out. Linguists who had kept their doubts them together in the form of codes represent- and grumbles to themselves were now embold- ing objects, actions, and, ultimately, thoughts ened to speak out openly. and calculations—and called the codes words. Michael Tomasello, a psychologist who was In Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Everett ani- co-director of the Max Planck Institute for mates his avant-garde theory with the story of Evolutionary Anthropology and one of the his own thirty years with the Pirahã . .. risking scholars who commented on Everett’s 2005 ar- death in virtually every conceivable form in ticle in Current Anthropology, had been criti- the jungle, from malaria to murder to poison to cal of this and that in Chomsky’s theory for getting swallowed by anacondas. several years. But in 2009, after Everett’s book National Public Radio read great swaths of was published, he went all out in a paper enti- the book aloud over their national network tled “Universal Grammar Is Dead” for the and named it one of the best books of the year. journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences and con- Reviews in the popular press were uniformly fronted Chomsky head-on: “The idea of a bio- favorable, even glowing . .. to the point of logically evolved, universal grammar with lin- blinding . .. as in the Sacramento Book Review: guistic content is a myth.” “Myth” became the “A genuine and engrossing book that is both new word. Vyvyan Evans of Wales’s Bangor sharp and intuitive; it closes around you and University expanded it into a book, The Lan- reaches inside you, controlling your every guage Myth, in 2014. He came right out and thought and movement as you read it.” It is rejected Chomsky’s and Steven Pinker’s idea “impossible to forget.” of an innate, natural-born “language instinct.” Ideally, great wide-eyed romantic acclaim In a blurb, Michael Fortescue of the Universi- like this should have no effect, except perhaps ty of Copenhagen added, “Evans’ rebuttal of a negative one, in academia. But when the Chomsky’s Universal Grammar from the per- truth squad’s 30,000-word “reassessment” final- spective of Cognitive Linguistics provides an ly came out in Language, in June of 2009, there excellent antidote to popular textbooks where was no explosion. The Great Rebuttal just lay it is assumed that the Chomskyan approach to there, a swollen corpus of objections—cosmic, linguistic theory . .. has somehow been vindi- small-minded, and everything in between. It cated once and for all.” didn’t make a sound. The success of Don’t Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning Sleep, There Are Snakes had defused it. to breathe life into the words of the Chomsky and the squad were far from done anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who for, however. They concentrated on the aca- had been written off as cranks or contrarians, demic press. No academic, in what was still such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s Uni- the Age of Chomsky, was likely to write any versity of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chom- gushing review of Everett’s scarlet book. sky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said Chomsky and the squad were on the qui vive in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan for anyone who stepped out of line. A profes- theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal sor of philosophy at King’s College London, grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twad- David Papineau, wrote a more or less positive dle, more akin to a religious movement than to a review of Don’t Sleep—only that: “more or scholarly enterprise. I am cond fi ent that our suc- less”—and a member of the truth squad, Da- cessors will look back on UG as a huge waste of vid Pesetsky, put him in his place. Papineau time. I deeply regret the fact that this sludge at- didn’t take this as good-hearted collegial ad- tracts so much attention outside linguistics, so vice. “For people outside of linguistics,” he much so that many non-linguists believe that said, “it’s rather surprising to find this kind of Chomskyan theory simply is linguistics ... and protection of orthodoxy.” that UG is now an established piece of truth, be- Three months after Don’t Sleep was published, yond criticism or discussion. The Chomsky dismissed Everett to the outer darkness truth is entirely otherwise.” with one of his favorite epithets. In an interview with Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s biggest and most In 2012 Everett published Language: The Cul- inu fl ential newspaper, news website, and mobile tural Tool, a book spelling out in scholarly detail news service, Chomsky said Everett “has turned the linguistic material he had tucked in amid into a charlatan.” A charlatan is a fraud who spe- the tales of death-dodging in Don’t Sleep, There cializes in showing off knowledge he doesn’t Are Snakes ... namely, that speech, language, is have. The epithets (“fraud,” “liar,” “charlatan”) not something that had evolved in Homo sapi- 38 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016ens, the way the breed’s unique small-motor- of America’s Linguistic Institute at the Universi- skilled hands had . . . or its next-to-hairless body. ty of Michigan . . . recursion had vanished, too. Speech is man-made. It is an artifact . . . and it So where did that leave Everett and his remarks explains man’s power over all other creatures in on recursion? Where? Nowhere. Recursion was a way Evolution all by itself can’t begin to. no longer an issue . . . and Everett didn’t exist Language: The Cultural Tool was Everett’s Or- anymore. He was a ghost, a vaporized nonper- igin of Species, his Philosophiae Naturalis . . . and it son. Naturally, the truth squad could no longer wasn’t nearly the success that Don’t Sleep had been. It went light on the autobio- graphical storyt elling . . . Oh, the book had its moments . . . Only Everett had it in him to make direct fun of Chomsky . . . He tells a story about visiting MIT in the early 1990s and going to what was billed as a major Chomsky lecture. “A group of his students were sitting in the back giggling,” says Everett. “When Chomsky mentioned the Martian linguist example, they could barely constrain their chuckles and I saw money changing hands.” After the talk, he asked them what that was all about, and they said they had bets with each other on exactly when in his lecture Chomsky would drop his moldy old Mar- tian linguist on everybody. Critics such as Tomasello and Vyvyan Evans, as well as Everett, had begun to have their doubts about Chomsky’s UG. Where did that leave the rest of his anat- omy of speech? After all, he was very firm in his insistence that it was a physical structure. Somewhere in the brain the language organ was actually pumping the UG through the deep structure so that the LAD, the language acquisition device, could make language, speech, audible, visible, the absolutely real product of Homo sapi- ens’s central nervous system. And Chomsky’s reaction? As always, Chomsky proved to be unbeatable when it came to debate. He never let himself be backed into a corner, where he could be forced to have it out with his attackers jowl to howl. He either jumped out ahead of them and up above them or so artfully dodged them that they were left staggering off stride. Tomasello had closed in and just about see him, either. They couldn’t have cared less had him on all this far-fetched para-anatomy, about churning up an angry wave for Language: when suddenly— The Cultural Tool to come surfing in on. They —shazzzzammm—Chomsky’s language organ didn’t even extend Everett the courtesy of loath- and all its para-anatomy, if that was what it was, ing him in print. They left non-him behind with disappeared, as if it had never been there in the all the rest of history’s roadside trash. r fi st place. He never recanted a word. He merely The passage of time did not mollify Chom- subsumed the same concepts beneath a new and sky’s opinion of the non-him, Everett, in the broader body of thought. Gone, too, astonish- slightest. In 2016, when I pressed him on the ingly, was recursion. Recursion In 2002 Chom- point, Chomsky blew off Everett like a nonenti- sky had announced his discovery of recursion ty to the minus-second power. and pronounced it the essential element of hu- “It”—Everett’s opinion; he does not refer to man speech. But here, in the summer of 2013, Everett by name—“amounts to absolutely noth- when he appeared before the Linguistic Society ing, which is why linguists pay no attention to it. ESSAY 39He claims, probably incorrectly, it doesn’t “particular computational cognitive system, matter whether the facts are right or not. I implemented neurally” . . . there is the propo- mean, even accepting his claims about the sition that Neanderthals could speak . . . language in question—Pirahã—tells us but . . . there is no proof . . . we know anatom- nothing about these topics. The speakers of ically that the Neanderthals’ hyoid bone in this language, Pirahã speakers, easily learn the throat, essential for Homo sapiens’s Portuguese, which has all the properties of speech, was in the right place .. . but . . . “hy- normal languages, and they learn it just as oid morphology, like most other lines of evi- easily as any other child does, which means dence, is evidently no silver bullet for deter- they have the same language capacity as mining when human language originated” . . . anyone else does.” Chomsky and the trio go over aspect after as- As a result, Everett’s new book didn’t begin pect of language . . . but . .. there is some- to kick up the ruckus that Don’t Sleep, There thing wrong with every hypothesis . .. they Are Snakes had. An entirely new world had try to be all-encompassing .. . but . .. in the been born in linguistics. In effect, Chomsky end any attentive soul reading it realizes that was announcing—without so much as a quick all 5,000 words were summed up in the very look back over his shoulder—“Welcome to the first eleven words of the piece, which read: Strong Minimalist Thesis, Hierarchically “The evolution of the faculty of Structured Expression, and Merge.” A regular language largely remains an enigma.” syllablavalanche had buried the language organ and the body parts that came with it. An enigma A century and a half’s worth Starting in the 1950s, said Chomsky, whose of certie fi d wise men, if we make Darwin the own career had started in the 1950s, “there’s starting point—or of bearers of doctoral de- been a huge explosion of inquiry into lan- grees, in any case—six generations of them guage. . .. Far more penetrating work is going had devoted their careers to explaining exact- on into a vastly greater array of theoretical is- ly what language is. After all that time and sues. . .. Many new topics have been opened. cerebration they had arrived at a conclusion: The questions that students are working on language is . . . an enigma? Chomsky all by today could not even be formulated or even himself had spent sixty years on the subject. imagined half a century ago or, for that mat- He had convinced not only academia but also ter, much more recently.. ..” They are “con- an awed public that he had the answer. And sidering more seriously the most fundamental now he was a signatory of a declaration that question about language, namely, what is it.” language remains . . . an enigma? What is it? With the help of “the formal sci- “Little enough is known about cognitive ences,” said Chomsky, we can take on “the systems and their neurological basis,” most basic property of language, namely, that Chomsky had said to John Gliedman back each language provides an unbounded array” in 1983. “But it does seem that the represen- of (Chomsky loved “array”) “hierarchically tation and use of language involve specific structured expressions ... through some rath- neural structures, though their nature is not er obscure system of thought that we know is well understood.” there but we don’t know much It was just a matter of time, he intimated about it.” then, until empirical research would substanti- ate his analogies. That was thirty years ago. So In August of 2014, Chomsky teamed up in thirty years, Chomsky had advanced from with three colleagues, Johan J. Bolhuis, Rob- “specic n fi eural structures, though their nature is ert C. Berwick, and Ian Tattersall, to publish not well understood” to “some rather obscure an article for the journal PLoS Biology with system of thought that we know is there but we the title “How Could Language Have don’t know much about.” Evolved?” After an invocation of the Strong In three decades nobody had turned up any Minimalist Thesis and the Hierarchical Syn- hard evidence to support Chomsky’s conviction tactic Structure, Chomsky and his new trio that every person is born with an innate, gene- declare, “It is uncontroversial that language driven power of speech with the motor running. has evolved, just like any other trait of living But so what? Chomsky had made the most am- organisms.” Nothing else in the article is bitious attempt since Aristotle’s in 350 b.c. to anywhere nearly so set in concrete. Chomsky explain what exactly language is. And no one et alii note it was commonly assumed that else in human history had come even close. It language was created primarily for communi- was dazzling in its own flailing way—this age- cation  . . . but . .. in fact communication is old, unending, utter, ultimate, universal display an all but irrelevant, by-the-way use of lan- of ignorance concerning man’s most important guage . . . language is deeper than that; it is a n single gift. 40 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / AUGUST 2016