The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Daniel Everett


25 Responses to “The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Daniel Everett”

  1. capl says:

    Great interview, thanks!

  2. awjt says:

    Naw!!!  We’re unhappy because we have so much?  No wayyyy.

    • nommh oh says:

      We’re unhappy, because we had too little in the past and are continually anxious because we may not have ‘enough’ in the future. We’re unhappy because we carry the past on our backs  like a nightmare in a sack. We’re unhappy because we’re afraid of change and we know there WILL be change.
      Some people may make themselves unhappy by providing snappy, but simplistic comments to ward of the extreme otherness they meet in some interviews…

  3. bmcraec says:

    Interesting that this appears today—I just read an article this morning about the controversy in linguistic circles about Everett’s contention that the Pirahã language doesn’t have Chomsky’s foundational element of recursiveness. If he’s correct, and the “living in the present” metaphysics is reflected from the language himself, then Chomsky’s theory of language will be in question.

    Interesting problem. Here’s a link to the article:

    • Cynical says:

      Given the rather simplified assertions he makes about English, French and German all coming from the same root I’d be very surprised if he was correct rather than Chomsky. You could use a lot of the arguments that he makes to argue that Japanese people have no sense of future, given that their language lacks a future tense.

      A lack of recursion in Piraha doesn’t mean that recursion is not important in languages, just that Piraha is not something that fits easily into our model of what constitutes language. I could grunt at you non-verbally and make my meaning clear, but that doesn’t mean that grunting is language. I think the real test is if a native speaker of Piraha is completely unable to use recursion in another, learnt, language, and I’d be willing to bet that wouldn’t be the case.

      Language is an imperfect tool we use to describe the world around us, not a direct path into the subconscious. Isolated languages are interesting because they don’t use the shortcuts that are commonly imported into other, more integrated languages (such as arabic numerals replacing pretty much every indigenous counting system in modern languages), but that’s not to say that people who speak isolated languages have no way of coneptualising these ideas, just that expressing them is more difficult.

      • wysinwyg says:

        Given the rather simplified assertions he makes about English, French and German all coming from the same root I’d be very surprised if he was correct rather than Chomsky.

        Whuh?  You mean because he gave short shrift to the complicated process that gave us English?  Because all three of these languages are Indo European and so they do come from the same root.

        • Cynical says:

          The same root family of languages, yes, but to say “they were all the same language 6,000 years ago” is such a gross over-simplification (and also inherently implies that all languages must be derived from one common proto-language, which is conjecture at best) that it makes me pretty reluctant to trust any other conclusions that he makes about linguistics.

          I mean, sure, simplifying the issue for the sake of giving an easily understood interview is fine, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence about the rest of his conclusions. Especially the idea that Pirahã lacks recursiveness when Everett’s own research suggests otherwise, as shown in the article linked by bmcraec.

          Given his repeated knack for over-simplification, and having now read his rebuttal of Nevins et al linked below, it seems to me that his ideas stem from an outdated and frankly unrealistic championing of Sapir-Whorf, and a lack of understanding (as he says himself) of what linguists are referring to when they say recursion.

  4. awjt says:

    “I am about to tell you something that happened.  Someone told me about this.  Yesterday, John hit Bill.”

  5. Alexander Johannesen says:

    I read “Don’t sleep, there’s snake” just last week, and it was wonderful. It had me in tears at times, but also plenty of stuff to smile and ponder, a truly wonderful read that will make you a smidgen smarter.

  6. norvin3 says:

    I think it’s worth reading through the comments in the article that bmcraec links–there are a lot of Chomskyan linguists there making what seem to me to be good comments about why exactly Everett’s proposals about recursion are controversial (I may be biased, since I’m one of the linguists who commented!)

    One reason for the controversy is that if a Pirahã wants to say, to use Everett’s example, “John said that Peter hit Bill”, it’s not that they’re tongue-tied–there is something that they say.  Everett is currently claiming that what they say is really a pair of independent sentences, something like “John spoke.  Peter hit Bill”.  In other words, he wants to claim that the language doesn’t have embedded clauses.

    There is what I think is a good critical takedown of this claim in:

    and Everett has a reply here:

  7. chgoliz says:

    I’m surprised no one has yet commented on how refreshing this linguistic style would be in our (US) political and media worlds.

  8. Yeah right.. So interesting.. :) need to be watch..:)

  9. KWillets says:

    There once was a man cast aspersions
    on Chomskian linguists’ recursion.
    He claimed the mentality
    of evidentiality
    made limericks like this an incursion.

  10. It is said the Pirahã have a hundred words for ‘linguist’. /rimshot

  11. qpain says:

    Do the “ñ”s in the interview serve a purpose, or are they simply typos?

  12. 50thomas says:

    Freudian slip?
    Avi: And hopefully, we the colonized can learn from them. 

    No one wants to be the colonizer…

  13. andre paris says:

    maybe it was missionary Buddhists that got to them first and taught them about living in the now and they incorporated that into their language?

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