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(2013-04-07 11:33:06)




分类: 阅读篇


 Book Review:Understanding language; Talk, talk;


Language: The Cultural Tool. By Daniel Everett.


  For half a century an influential group of Western linguists, led by Noam Chomsky, have argued that language is an innate human faculty, the product of a “language organ” in the mind. Other prominent “innatists” include Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist and author of “The Language Instinct”, and Derek Bickerton, a linguist at the University of Hawaii and developer of a “bio-program” theory of language. Innatists believe that all languages share fundamental features. And linguistic innatism is part of a wider debate about just how much of human nature is wired into the brain.

    半个世纪以来,一群由诺姆·乔姆斯基牵头的, 有影响力的西方语言学家已经证实,语言是人类一种先天的能力,是大脑中“语言器官”的产物。其它著名的“先天派学者”包括进化心理学家兼《语言本能》的作者史蒂夫·皮尔克,和夏威夷大学的语言学家兼“生物计划”语言理论的创始人德里克贝克顿。 “先天派学者”认为,所有语言都有共同的基本特点,并且语言天赋论是关于有多少人性是大脑固有的这一更广泛辩论内容的一部分。

  Daniel Everett, a linguist at Bentley University in Massachusetts, disagrees on both innatism and the fundamental similarity of languages. He spent years learning tiny languages in forbidding jungle villages, experiences he recounted in his 2008 memoir, “Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes”. In his new book, “Language: The Cultural Tool”, Mr Everett moves away from narrow linguistic anthropology to broad theory. He argues that language is not the product of a “language organ” but an extension of general intelligence.


  Instead of unfolding in the same way in Paris and Papua New Guinea, languages are crafted by their speakers to meet their needs. He cites the Piraha, the Brazilian Amazonian group he has spent the longest time living with. There are no numbers beyond two in Piraha because, Mr Everett argues, they have no money, engage in little barter trade, do not store food for the future and do not think about the distant past. This “living for the moment”, which the Piraha enjoy (they think Western life sounds dreadful), shapes their language.


  That different cultures have different words is unsurprising. It is when these differences affect cognition (the Piraha cannot do maths, for example) that things get interesting. But Mr Everett's most controversial argument, and his biggest challenge to linguistic innatism, is about grammar.

    不同的文化有不同的文字并不令人惊奇,但当这些不同之处影响到了认知能力时,事情就变得有趣了。(举例来说,皮尔哈人不会数学。) 但是埃弗里特最有争议的观点和对语言天赋论最大的挑战是有关语法的。

  Mr Chomsky has argued that “recursion” is the key feature of all human language. This is the embedding of smaller units inside bigger ones: a subordinate clause is a kind of recursion, embedding a sentence in a bigger one. Mr Everett says that the Piraha lack grammatical recursion, and that even if recursion is universal (Piraha use it in stories if not within sentences), this does not prove the existence of the language organ. Information is naturally organized with smaller bits nesting inside larger ones. That nearly all humans would find this linguistically useful is little different than widely varying societies independently inventing the bow and arrow—it is simply useful, and no proof of an instinct. True instincts, like turtles making their way to the sea or ducklings bonding with their mothers, require no learning. Language does. Animals do not truly excel in their deployment of basic instincts, whereas some humans clearly use language much better than others.

    乔姆斯基已经证明“递归”是所有人类语言的关键特征。递归是让更小的单位嵌入更大的单位内部:一个从句是一种递归,把一个句子嵌入更大的句子中。埃弗里特认为,皮尔哈缺乏符合语法规则的递归,即使递归是普遍存在的(皮尔哈人把它用在没有长句子的故事中),也不能证明语言器官的存在。信息是用小字节嵌入更大的字节而自然组成的。几乎所有人都能发现这种语言学的用途这一说法和广泛变化的社会独立发明弓和箭这一说法几乎没有什么不同。它是有用的, 而且没有本能的迹象。真正的本能是不用学习的,就像海龟用它们的方式去海边和小鸭子总是跟着它们的妈妈一样。语言也是如此。动物们并不是真正擅长运用基本的本能,而有些人显然比其他人更好的使用语言。

  But Mr Everett, in trying to reach a popular audience while making an argument aimed at professional linguists, makes some awkward compromises. He cites a paper by other researchers claiming to have found that there are no features that are common to all languages, an argument that is crucial to his thesis. But he does not give enough detail for the reader. Later he even contradicts himself, saying that all languages have nouns and verbs.


  He argues that differences between societies lead to profound differences between languages, but fails to drive the point home fully. Or take Banawá, another Amazonian language, in which the default gender of an unknown person or mixed group of people is feminine, not masculine as in most languages. The Banawá also practice rigid gender segregation, even whipping young girls bloody after their first menstruation. Could the unusual gender-assignment of Banawá be a product of this gender-segregated Banawá society? “The only answer at present is, ‘Perhaps',” he writes. Even the lack of grammatical recursion in Piraha? Mr Everett's key piece of evidence that it is culture that creates language, cannot tell the whole tale. Similar tribal cultures have languages bristling with recursion.


   Mr Everett thinks it possible that culture influences grammar, but he is not sure. He acknowledges that conjecture about what causes linguistic differences has been a staple of much irresponsible amateur linguistics. It is hard to work out where culture has affected language, where language affects culture and cognition (a hot topic of psycholinguistic research), and where the differences are unrelated. Mr Everett has reminded the innatists, and an impressively modest and reasoned one will consider that Mr Chomsky once called him a charlatan. His case is not wholly proven, but it deserves a serious reading.



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