Reader’s digest

The latest issue of the New York Review has a piece by Freeman Dyson on crackpot science, in which he makes a dig at string theory and gives the undoubted eccentrics full credit for creative flair and sincerity. There’s also one on Brazil’s Indian Policy, a depressing read which reminded me of a review elsewhere of a new book by Daniel Everett, a missionary turned linguist cum ethnographer who has studied the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon and is opposed to the predominant theory of Noam Chomsky that all languages are hardwired in the brain as “universal grammar”. Instead he argues it is an “invention”. This perspective is similar to the Chicago School which describes language as being governed by very simple rules, with the rest little more than collocation. Far from reducing the grandeur of language, this leaves it free to be the vehicle of culture rather than mere variations on a given theme. Like saying homosexuality is a splendid daring adoption become second nature, not inborn and immutable, there are political gains and losses. For Chomsky the innateness of language fits with his view of the dignity of man as universal and inalienable; but this doesn’t do justice to the wilful quirkiness we delight in, especially in languages we don’t yet know very well. I haven’t read either of Everett’s books, but my impression is he thinks the Pirahã have important insights into life that we lack. They are constantly smiling and laughing, even though they tend to die of malaria by their mid-forties without any help at all from the white man. Their language has no syntax to grasp the remote past or future. Chomsky doubtless thinks of Everett as a crackpot, or at best a careless amateur.

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