In the Beginning was Chomsky

Harper’s Magazine – by Tom Wolfe

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Tom has gone after big game – and has bagged his quarry.

Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hardscience, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

This is a long article, but so well-written I have no trouble reading it – twice. And I download a book that it mentioned Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes – of which it says this:

OOOF! — right into the solar plexus! — a 13,000-word article in the August–October 2005 issue of Current Anthropology entitled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã” by one Daniel L. Everett. Pirahã was apparently a language spoken by several hundred — estimates ranged from 250 to 500 — members of a tribe, the Pirahã (pronounced Pee-da-hannh), isolated deep within Brazil’s vast Amazon basin (2,670,000 square miles, about 40 percent of South America’s entire landmass). Ordinarily, Chomsky was bored brainless by all those tiny little languages that old-fashioned flycatchers like Everett were still bringing back from out in “the field.” But this article was an affront aimed straight at him, by name, harping on two points: first, this particular tiny language, Pirahã, had no recursion, none at all, immediately reducing Chomsky’s law to just another feature found in most languages; and second, it was the Pirahã’s own distinctive culture, their unique ways of living, that shaped the language — not any “language organ,” not any “universal grammar” or “deep structure” or “language acquisition device” that Chomsky said all languages had in common.

And this:

In November of 2008, a full seven months before the truth squad’s scheduled hecatomb time for Everett, he, the scheduled mark, did a stunning thing. He maintained his mad pace and beat them into print — with one of the handful of popular books ever written on linguistics: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, an account of his and his family’s thirty years with the Pirahã. It was dead serious in an academic sense. He loaded it with scholarly linguistic and anthropological reports of his findings in the Amazon. He left academics blinking . . . and nonacademics with eyes wide open, staring. The book broke free of its scholarly binding right away.

I downloaded the Kindle version, and couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s