Edit: I'm signing off now. Thanks to everyone for all your questions and kind words. I hope to do another AMA soon! If you want to learn more about language, linguistics, cognition, and culture, check out my podcast series: The Story of Language podcast with Dan Everett

Proof here: https://twitter.com/canguroenglish/status/1392156667471704066

Some of the things that you might want to ask me about are:

The four decades I have spent working on about 20 Amazonian languages, including living over 7 years in villages of the Pirahã people, along the Maici River in the Amazon jungle.

Jungle experiences, including attacks by large anacondas, Amazonian giant centipedes, Wandering spiders, jaguars, pumas, and so on. I also have had all three types of malaria of the Amazon multiple times, including once when I had malaria, vivax, and falciparum simultaneously.

I began my career in the Amazon as an evangelical protestant missionary but became an atheist, which caused severe problems in my family, and led to loss of employment as a missionary (who needs an atheist missionary?)

I have a 15-year running debate with Chomsky in which he (and others) have called me a charlatan, though many other linguists, anthropologists, and cognitive scientists agree with me. If I am right - I am - Chomsky’s principal theoretical works - that language is innate and that all human languages have recursive sentences, are wrong.

In my book Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, I created a “ranked-value” theory of culture and how culture and language build each other, a cognitive symbiosis.

My most recent book, How Language Began, argues that language is a human invention, that it is over 1.5, probably 2, million years ago. I have followed up on this with an archaeologist co-author, Dr. Larry Barham, in which we use data from tool construction and treatment to argue that Homo erectus had language. More and more data from many other scientists shows that language is far older than our species.

Comments: 1341 • Responses: 119  • Date: 

wxehtexw437 karma

I have read from your book that Piraha tribesmen can not count with integers and all attempts to help them learn failed. For someone who does math daily it feels almost impossible. Why do you think this happens?

DanEverett504 karma

I have discussed this in my books and other writings and psychologists from Stanford, MIT, and Columbia have worked with me on these issues. It happens, to give the easy answer, because math, counting, etc have no utility for the people.

Almost-April217 karma

How could that be the case? Are you saying they don’t have the concept of numbers, and if so, how would they plant a garden, or build a structure, or say how many children they had?

DanEverett635 karma

Right, No concept of numbers. They do not even have the number or concept of "one." Many experiments by MIT psychologist Ted Gibson, Stanford psychologist Mike Frank and others have shown this (experiments conducted in the field). As I have said, no Piraha parents knows how many children they have. But they all know the names of all their children and would never leave home without them.

mintmouse158 karma

You may find it interesting that they also don’t have language or concepts for time, similar to the Amondawa.

Pure conjecture, but I think we only learned about time because we needed to understand seasons for food and survival reasons, but in a rainforest this isn’t necessary.

Some cultures must plant now, or starve later.

Other cultures must plant. What is now? What is later? We can only be here.

DanEverett197 karma

I just published a large article on time in Piraha. Fairly technical, but although they do not have tenses, they can interpret past, present, and future easily enough via context.

AllanBz12 karma

Do they have aspect?

DanEverett15 karma

Yes. Quite robust aspect.

allison_is_dummy323 karma

Excluding Pirahã, what is the most interesting language you've worked with?

DanEverett521 karma

Wari'. It is a Chapakuran language of Western Brazil, on the border with Bolivia. I have co-written a 547 page grammar of that language.

angriguru183 karma

I was skimming the wikipedia page for Wari' this morning! Had no idea you had worked on the documentation of that language too.

DanEverett272 karma

Indeed. I did a monolingual demonstration for the Brazilian Indian Foundation, FUNAI, and the language they gave me was Wari' The Wari' speaker returned to the village and told a missionary, "This Daniel learned my language in 30 minutes." (False, haha). The missionary, Barbara Kern, asked me to write the grammar of the language with her. I did.

comrade_donkey33 karma

Is that grammar regular? I interpret your saying "no recursive sentences" as Chomsky's "not context-free". Is that what you meant?

DanEverett95 karma

The sentential grammar is regular in the formal sense. However, in my recent work I have suggested other terms that do not intersect with Chomsky's hierarchy of grammars. The effects of different grammars on the semantics are mitigated by different forms of compositionality. The idea that semantics mirrors grammar is a long-standing problem in some ways that it is applied in linguistics.

weezuls243 karma

Why does Chomsky call you a charlatan? Does he think you made up linguistic data?

DanEverett423 karma

He believes that it is so obvious that all languages have recursion that one would have to be a liar to deny that (this is what he told me in a conversation). But also, yes, I think that he and many people believe that I have doctored the data. When one agrees with data, it makes sense. When one disagrees, one suspects...

Henemy145 karma


  1. A question that I ask at every AMA cause I find it always interesting: what led you to your profession? I see you touched on previously being a missionary but could you trace back a bit on your career path and describe your decision making?
  2. Is your disagreement with Chomsky entirely within the linguistic sphere or does it extend to other fields as well?
  3. Another staple question: favorite book?

DanEverett198 karma

I got interested in Amazonian languages because I wanted to be a missionary. Before that I was a guitar player in California in the 60s. I eventually abandoned religion, largely due to the influence of the Pirahas. My favorite book varies from year to year. I am mainly reading philosophy at the moment. I did an interview for the five books website some years ago. My disagreement with Chomsky is largely linguistic, but carries over into philosophy as well.

Farmer771122107 karma

I did an interview for the five books website some years ago

Link: https://fivebooks.com/best-books/daniel-everett-linguistics/

DanEverett66 karma


carryontothemoon127 karma

Something I’ve been wondering about for a while — do you feel that SIL’s “faith-based” nature and the intertwining of missionary work & linguistic study/language preservation ever has a negative impact on the integrity or quality of the latter? Do you consider it ethical to combine the two goals?

DanEverett247 karma

Yes, I believe that many missionaries who do linguistics work just want to do enough to get the OK to begin Bible translation, so that is an adverse effect. But many missionary linguists with SIL are very good and do superb work. It is fine to combine linguistics with other goals, but I am opposed to the missionary enterprise.

Fiestoforo113 karma

Hi, I appreciate your time here! My question is How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your linguistic work?

DanEverett220 karma

No fieldwork! No in-person conferences. No access to university archives where libraries are closed. Very bad effects.

Macaranzana103 karma

What would you recommend to someone that is interested in starting a career in field linguistics and learning/working with endangered languages. What skills are the most important? If you were to start today, where would you start?

DanEverett230 karma

Well, you need to study in a linguistics or anthropology program that is strong in fieldwork. Before going to the field the single most important skill is articulatory phonetics. You have to be able to hear and transcribe sounds accurately. Everything else in field research depends on that. Also it is good to have what Nixon called an "iron butt." You have to be able to sit and think and analyze with patience. And you need to enjoy cross-cultural experiences.

Macaranzana57 karma

There are no courses focused on articulatory phonetics at my university. Is it possible to learn this on your own?

P.s. I watched your monolingual demonstration class a while ago and I thought that your multilingual skills were particularly useful.

DanEverett128 karma

You can get courses from different books, perhaps even online. If you contact me directly sometime (via my website) I can send some more detailed recommendations.

tzigi70 karma

As someone who works with endangered languages I will chime in: languages and language varities/dialects are endangered pretty much everywhere (I work with groups from Mexico, Italy, Netherlands and Poland for example - but our next project is set to encompass also the Republic of South Africa and Vanuatu). Take a look around you and see who's marginalised, whether they speak some language which differs in some way from the majority one and you might find yourself soon sitting on the fence between academia and activism.

The work itself has many very different aspects: the one our AmA host does seems mostly documentary/fieldwork focused i.e. it's going out and documenting a language. But for other endangered languages a huge part of work is their revitalization and that's a whole new set of issues. What helps are people skills, linguistic skills and basic common sense - in my opinion in this order. Without people skills researchers often become indistinguishable from colonizers taking knowledge away from the community and profiting form it or conversely - not being able to get anything at all. Without linguistic skills (and a solid grounding in the knowledge) one can help a lot but not with language itself, more with culture or politics. Without basic common sense (a thing which - unsurprisingly - is rather lacking among many scholars) one either finds oneself in trouble during fieldwork or irritates the local collaborators.

I have way more to say about it but it's just a reddit comment so I'll stick with that. However should you want to know more, I can point you to a really new (I mean like "this week new") book we've just published in Cambridge University Press and made available in Open Access: Revitalizing Endangered Languages A Practical Guide. And yes, it's unashamed self-promotion as I am one of the authors of the texts featured there.

If you have any more questions, I'd gladly answer them :)

DanEverett5 karma

Very cool!!!

LoSchifoso80 karma

If we reject the hypothesis of Universal Grammar, how do we explain the cross-linguistically invariant prosodic shape infants’ of canonical babbling (CV.CV.CV)? It is not clear that the articulatory mechanics of VC.VC.VC are any different or more difficult or that there are cognitive/usage-based/cultural reasons why ba.ba.ba is preferable to ab.ab.ab for all infants irrespective of where they are born or what language they are acquiring. What accounts for this fact if UG is wrong?

DanEverett69 karma

This is a good question. There are of course many discussions of this. There are phonetic accounts - for example vowels and consonant transitions are easiest to hear in most positions of the phrase in CV syllables. So it is natural that those are widespread and first used by children. VC makes vowels and consonants harder to distinguish than CV. The computational speech synthesis literature, for example, aside from linguistics, is full of discussions of this topic.

lovegrowgo77 karma

Can you speak more on your loss of faith? I am going through something similar at the moment. (I used to identify as evangelical) I'm finding more and more issues with Christianity as I ask questions

DanEverett191 karma

My loss of faith was driven by several factors. First, the Pirahã people I was living with were happier than most Christians, less fearful, healthier psychologically. And they thought the idea of god was bizarre. Second, I knew many non-Christian Brazilians and they had great questions I could not answer. Third, and principally, my own thinking led me to question the articles of faith and doctrine such that I eventually reached the conclusion that they made little sense. Like Santa Claus.

Hautamaki5 karma

Brazil seems to have this effect; one of my good friends was a Mormon missionary who lost his faith on a mission to Rio.

DanEverett7 karma

Hahaha. Rio is not a great place to be a conservative believer.

Fiestoforo76 karma

Thanks again for all your answers! Many languages in South American are isolated (apparently the highest proportion of language isolates), do you have a theory/opinion on why is that so?

DanEverett165 karma

Because the jungle is a vast place to get lost in. On the other hand, Piraha is currently a language isolate. But we know that this is because the other languages in the Mura family it belongs to have all died out. So both isolation and extinction of related languages can lead to this. And the Amazon is a tough place.

allison_is_dummy36 karma

Where do you see the origins of these numerous isolates? Do you believe that they truly have seperate origins, or is it simply too difficult to prove a relationship due to their divergence?

DanEverett86 karma

After a time depth of about 3,000-5,000 years it becomes almost impossible to see clear evidence.

hypnos162067 karma

Would you consider yourself fluent in Pirahã? Does the language come to you as naturally as when you are speaking English, or do you sometimes struggle with finding the right way to express yourself? How does your knowledge of other Amazonian languages you've studied compare against your knowledge of Pirahã?

DanEverett200 karma

I speak Portuguese at close to native fluency. I can say what I want to say in Piraha and I understand them well. But I am not close to native fluency. Many times I have to listen to texts multiple times to accurately understand them. But for outsiders I would sound fluent. My pronunciation is native. And many Pirahas say that I sound just like a Piraha. But they are very nice and tolerant people.

NotReallySure---16 karma

Eu sou brasileira e li pela primeira vez sobre seu trabalho quando estava na escola(em uma matéria da BBC!). É tão louco pensar que o Brasil tem uma diversidade de culturas e linguas e a maior parte da população não tem ideia... acho muito triste a maneira como a cultura indígena é apagada da nossa história.

Uma pergunta, como você sente seu trabalho com a FUNAI? Tenho alguns amigos que trabalham com a causa indígena e eles sentem muita dificuldade em conseguir fazer qualquer coisa

DanEverett11 karma

A FUNAI era um orgao muito responsavel. Nos ultimos anos virou uma barreira - ate pedindo suborno.

Bamm_Micc62 karma

thoughts on Wittgensteinian theories of language? I'm merely a dabbler but seems like Witt falls more in line with your thinking - that language describes ideas and is not objective but always subjective.

Or maybe it's tangent to the problem you've proposed to solve?

DanEverett103 karma

Wittgenstein was influenced, through Frank Ramsey and Bertrand Russell, by Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce's philosophy is very important in my work and I am currently writing a biography of Peirce. So in this sense Wittgenstein's view of meaning as use is important to the work that I do

Humbertom2548 karma

Hi, my name is Humberto and I will be one of your students In the fall. If you don’t mind a answering, what led to you losing your faith and how you ended up an atheist?

I’ve been fighting this battle myself and would love to hear your story and journey. Thank you

DanEverett167 karma

When I was a boy, my mother made me go to church. When I was 11 she died. I continued going to church out of a sense of loyalty to my mom. Then I moved away to live with another relative and drifted away. I was using LSD, weed, etc. In 1968, I was in front of Balboa Stadium in San Diego selling LSD to get enough money to get in to see Jimi Hendrix who was about to perform there. A young woman (17) came up with her boyfriend. She and I started talking (goodbye boyfriend, haha) and I discovered she had been raised in the Amazon and was the child of missionaries. This resonated with me and brought back memories of my mother. I gave up drugs immediately. I started going with this young woman to church. We got marrried. We moved to Brazil. But then I realized that religion did not in fact satisfy me intellectually. God was an impediment not a help to my intellectual development. So I abandoned that belief. When I told the Pirahas this they all laughed. "Now you are like us! Not like all the Americans!" (They had only known Americans who were Christian missionaries). We got along better. Life improved. Without religion the world is a better place for me.

DanEverett30 karma

I was pretty sure I typed a long answer to this, though I do not see it. If you don't see it I will retype it.

Humbertom2539 karma

Thank you Professor Dan for answering my questions and being open and honest. Excited to take SO 275 with you in the fall!

DanEverett30 karma

Looking forward to it!

jelvinjs747 karma

What are you thoughts on the Proto-Human Language hypothesis—aka the idea that all languages descend from a single language spoken way back in the past, and therefore all human languages today are at least a tiny bit related—that is supported by people like Greenberg, Ruhlen, and Bengston?

anchorgangpro35 karma

Everything I've read of his seems to lead me to believe he would not agree. And language develops naturally even without speech, there was a school of deaf girls in south or central america who spontaneously developed a unique form of sign language

DanEverett14 karma

Yes. Language is a very valuable technology. Crucial to human well-being and survival.

DanEverett17 karma

I interacted with Greenberg and Ruhlen on this at a conference in 1990 at U of Colorado. I do not think that the hypothesis is strongly supported by the evidence, to put it mildly.

doboskombaya46 karma

To what extent is the claim that Piraha people don't have any spiritual beliefs true? What do they think happens to the deceased ones?What keeps them going?Where do they think they come from?

DanEverett142 karma

For the Pirahas dead people are dead. They go nowhere, just as dead dogs do not. Dig them up and they are still there. The Pirahas are very empirical. They have a lot of concepts that differ from ours. I discuss them in Don't sleep there are snakes. But one thing they don't have is a belief in gods, myths about spirituality, supernatural beings, etc.

ManitouWakinyan13 karma

Don't you write in Don't Sleep stories about the Piraha talking about spirits, the one who lives above the clouds, etc.?

DanEverett25 karma

I do indeed. I once thought that they were spirits - when I was a missionary. I did not realize that Pirahas claim to actually see these things and say that they are beings, real beings with physical bodies that live in different places. These entities take on the role of a combination of fiction and nonfiction, but are not spirits. They further show, to me at least, that our western concepts of fiction and nonfiction don't fit all situations and cultures.

Xefjord37 karma

I run a website where I am teaching every known living language to a basic survival level for free as charity. Seeing that you have worked with many smaller and harder to reach indigenous communities:

What is your recommendation on finding, contacting, and communicating with communities for the purpose of linguistic and language learning related projects?

I want to support more languages and help build bridges between various cultures and groups while helping give indigenous communities the resources to help promote and grow their own languages, but finding members of smaller communities can be quite difficult, larger organizations often ignore emails, and language and cultural barriers arise to make people hostile to linguistic/language based projects all the time. I would love to hear your experiences and how to properly deal with this issue.

DanEverett66 karma

This is a very admirable goal. Unfortunately most of the world's nearly 8,000 distinct languages have no internet access and are pre-literate/agraphic.

cat-head31 karma

Have your views on open access books and lang sci press change or are you still against it?

DanEverett77 karma

I have never been against open publishing. I have been against moralizing of it. I believe that academic work should be available to all free of charge. On the other hand, there are popular science and other commercial books that should be able to earn money if people want to buy them.

allison_is_dummy31 karma

Where do you see the future of human language diversity?

DanEverett98 karma

There is a lot of talk of endangered languages today, beginning back in the 90s. But ultimately economics is arguably the biggest driver of language preservation and vitality. If languages lose their utility to young speakers and, say, English wins out, well that is unsurprising. But it is very unfortunate.

OceansideAZ30 karma

Hi Prof. Everett -

Given how difficult it was to reach (and speak directly with) the Pirahã people, even before COVID, how do you keep from getting rusty in the language?

And do you think that the introduction of certain modern technologies to the Pirahã will change/have changed fundamental aspects of their language?

Thank you for doing this AmA. It is invaluable to have a diversity of thought in academic linguistics.

DanEverett56 karma

I have tons of recordings of the Pirahas and I listen to them a lot. My ex-wife sends me videos of the Pirahas asking me questions and talking to me, to which I reply. Still, nothing is as good as being there!

DanEverett30 karma

Thanks to all for your questions. I have to go now. All the best to you all.

witches_n_bitches29 karma

Hi, thanks for opening up to questions!

  1. Do you still have contact with Steve and/or Linda Sheldon, as the only other non-native fluent Pirahã speakers besides you and your ex-wife? Why or why not?
  2. What would you say to multilingual Pirahã-Portuguese speakers from the tribe who claim their native language is recursive in the traditional sense?
  3. Why do you think your work has become such a phenomenon within the linguistic community? Do you think that has affected or does affect your scholarly work?
  4. Any recommendations for non-religious linguistic organizations that are hands-on with remote populations similarly to what you’ve written about your time with SIL? Would you estimate most or all such orgs are in academia?

Thanks again! Best of luck with your work.

DanEverett48 karma

I have fairly regular contact with Steve Sheldon, one of the nicest human beings alive. He has been a constant source of encouragement to me. He still speaks Piraha very well.

There are no multilingual Piraha speakers. Not a single Piraha raised in the village speaks Portuguese, outside of a few sentences. Linguist Jeanette Sakel has done a couple of interesting studies on this. The only Pirahas who speak Portuguese were raised outside the village and do not speak Piraha. Their Portuguese is of course fully recursive.

vgrsfngrn5 karma

Who raised these kids raised outside the village? What is the process of adults or children leaving the village if no Piraha person in the village speaks Portuguese and no Piraha person outside the village speaks Piraha?

DanEverett5 karma

They were kidnapped as toddlers and raised as family members in Brazilian families.

DitzyDresses29 karma

There are been attempts to teach other animals human language, but as I understand it they have all failed to acquire an understanding of grammar. Is there something that Homo sapiens and Homo erectus share that other animals don't, or were our teaching methods flawed? I'm curious about your insights.

DanEverett93 karma

The problem with this approach is the Chomskyan idea that grammar is central to language, rather than symbols and meanings. Animals can create and learn symbols and so their distinction from humans' linguistic abilities is largely a matter of degree. But grammatical principals are secondary. When we try to make them primary then we are stacking the deck against animals.

SeasickSeal22 karma

Animals can create and learn symbols and so their distinction from humans' linguistic abilities is largely a matter of degree. But grammatical principals are secondary.

Can symbols have recursive meaning?

DanEverett68 karma

Yes. In fact they must! All symbols are recursive in interpretation. Peirce pointed this out in an 1865 paper on "Universal Grammar" (he was the first American to use this term)

trackday37 karma

Please eli5 what 'recursive meaning' is in this context, maybe with an example.

DanEverett51 karma

Take the term bachelor. How do you know what this means? By interpreting it via other symbols. How do you know what those mean? By more symbols. It is recursive.

DitzyDresses8 karma

That makes sense! Thanks!

DanEverett9 karma

You are welcome!

cat-head24 karma

Will you ever write a modern, comprehensive Piraha grammar?

DanEverett38 karma

I wrote a grammar, small 125 pages, in the Handbook of Amazon Languages. My agenda is too full of other projects now though. I doubt that I will ever do such a grammar, though I often think of doing it.

BrazenBull23 karma

I really like that hat in your proof photo. Where did you get it?

DanEverett42 karma

From my deceased father-in-law

Bamm_Micc21 karma

What's your view on traditional education being the route to "importance"? I'm sure I'm not the only one here who has *at times* succumbed to the traditional viewpoint that some of the only times that it seems people can do really notable things is if they graduate summa cum laude from some ivy league institution (Noam is kinda like this, for instance). But there are so many different types of cases. You seem to have rejected that pov in your life path and found your own way to contribute greatly to human knowledge via what interests you. Would you have some advice for the rest of us on how you thought about making your contribution during your life, or how you think others should think of it?

DanEverett58 karma

I did my undergraduate degree at a little Bible Institute, Moody Bible Institute. I did my ScD in Brazil at UNICAMP (I was the first person to finish a PhD at a government-approved linguistics graduate program in Brazil). So these are not Ivy League degrees. This puts one on the outside socially, or it can. I have been introduced at several universities with comments on my "strange" degrees. But what matters are ideas and how well you can defend them. Not what your diploma says on it. Charles Peirce was arguably the greatest polymath in North American history and his only degree was in chemistry - yet he worked as a physicist, was America's leading mathematician, its greatest-ever philosopher, etc.

Gassus-Hermippean46 karma

This is not a question, and is more so a show of gratitude. We exchanged only two or three messages around four years ago, and you gave me advice that, to be fair, made my (then-budding) academic life much harder, but much more fulfilling. I wish you all the best in this worrying time.

DanEverett28 karma

Many thanks to you! I am so glad I was of some help.

TcheQuevara16 karma

As someone who dreams with one day having a UNICAMP PhD in my area, it's a little weird knowing about that!

DanEverett14 karma

Cool! I studied and taught at UNICAMP from 1978-1986.

Natsu11118 karma

Hello, Prof. Everett, kind of unbelievable that I get to ask you something myself. :) What advice would you give to a student of linguistics who wishes to pursue fieldwork? Perhaps you could say something about, what about fieldwork you wish you yourself had known when you began. Asking for myself, I hope to pursue fieldwork but have no experience with it. :)

DanEverett23 karma

I wish I had known about discourse and the huge amount of variation in human languages. Have an open mind. A theory is an important tool to have, but do not be bound by it. In my book on Linguistic Fieldwork, with Jeanette Sakel, I offer all sorts of advice. But the main thing is to talk to a lot of fieldworkers and get a variety of perspectives.

Macaranzana18 karma

What would you say is the single most important book on linguistics?

DanEverett41 karma

Edward Sapir's 1921 book, Language. After that Leonard Bloomfield's 1933 book on Language. But prior to these are all of Peirce's writings (no book) on semiotics

misererefortuna17 karma

Sapir Whorf hypothesis. Is it true or not? Does language significantly affect how we perceive the world? And how we shape it

DanEverett52 karma

There are two versions of that hypothesis. The strong one, that language determines our thoughts is false. For example, Murray Gell-Man discovered quarks without words for them (taking one from James Joyce). So his thinking was not bounded by his language. That is what science is about. On the other hand there is no question that languages affect our thinking when we are acting rapidly (with time to reflect, we can escape this influence). My son, Caleb Everett, has written a very good book on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis with experimental evidence for its weaker effects.

Genius-Imbecile16 karma

What's your favorite type of taco?

DanEverett35 karma


dustyreptile14 karma

What kind of spirit would you say you cultivated to face the challenges of the Amazon? Like intrepid academic? Brave explorer? If you could sum it up what made you soldier on in those conditions?

DanEverett28 karma

Initially it was faith. I was prepared to die for my faith. After faith waned, I just enjoyed the life.

jp444514 karma

Two questions: 1. What lead to the decision to become an atheist? 2. What's your favorite part about your work?

DanEverett33 karma

  1. No evidence for God and a simpler account of life without him.
  2. The freedom and creativity of science. It is the most wonderful occupation I can imagine.

jp44456 karma

I've always had a fascination with anything science related, especially the universe

DanEverett11 karma


wxehtexw13 karma

Thank you your AmA! Recently I started reading your book and find your story fascinating!

Can you give a brief outline to the disagreement with Naom Chomsky? I have seen several articles claiming that you misrepresented Chomsky's argument and even articles claiming you to be a charlatan. I want to hear your side of the story!

DanEverett29 karma

Sure. Chomsky has said that he never claimed that all languages have recursion. Therefore, the fact that a language might lack recursion is not a problem. However, as I have pointed out, if recursion is the crucial foundation for his purported universal grammar and one language lacks it, then no language in principle has to have it. Therefore, it is contentless empirically. It predicts nothing. I have not misrepresented him on anything I am aware of. However, it does make it easier to avoid engaging with the arguments to claim so.

MJWood6 karma

Can you explain how Piraha works without recursion? If I understand correctly, that means it can't have embedded clauses??

DanEverett12 karma

Embedding is not recursion. Embedding without limit would be. If a language has but one level of embedding that is not recursion. My claim, however, is that Piraha has no sentential recursion or embedding, though it does have these features at the level of discourse (sentences fitting into paragraphs, paragraphs into texts, themes into themes, etc)

thenabi13 karma

How do you feel about strongly computational ideas of human language acquisition, such as Yang's Tolerance Principle? Much of the work is highly Chomsky-Adjacent but different enough that I'm curious how you feel about it.

DanEverett18 karma

This work is all sophisticated and well-reasoned, but begins with the wrong assumptions. Why would anyone first assume that human language is not learned by inference and go straight for instincts? Geoffrey Pullum, Dan Slobin, and many others have written on "irrational nativist exuberance." I don't find many cognitive scientists who are all that taken with Yang's work, though it is very popular among Chomskyans of course.

AmateurOntologist13 karma

What do you think are the greatest challenges the field of linguistics is facing today?

DanEverett43 karma

The antiquated methods that it uses and the reification of what it studies. It is not keeping up with the need and sophistication of more quantitative methods and it has separated language from culture, and cognition from culture, both of which I think are mistakes.

KushtyKush12 karma

What is your favourite language, and why?

DanEverett28 karma

Piraha. Because it is where I spent more than half my life and I think of jokes in it all the time.

Breitarschantilope13 karma

Do you think you could give us one of your favourite jokes in Pirahã or would that require too much explaining?

DanEverett67 karma

Jokes are mainly situational. The Pirahas are very sarcastic, so they might talk about someone having a strong arm when they are weak. They like to tell stories about Jesus having a large penis, which always make me laugh.

ElderD8 karma

Could you tell us a joke in Piraha? I would love to see how it looks like!!

DanEverett44 karma

Hisoi hi poobahaogiai xaoxaaga. Ti maiaaga.

Jesus has a big round poker. I am afraid.

Their humor is about at the level of my own, I am afraid. At least Piraha men humor. This might be universal among men. :)

flatspotting20 karma

So penis jokes are more universal than recursive language.

DanEverett6 karma

It would appear so.

HappierWhenAsleep11 karma

Hello! May I ask what's the most effective way to learn language? Is experience really the best teacher? What if I dont have the capacity to immerse myself in the culture of which speaks the language I would like to learn?

DanEverett51 karma

Live in a community of native speakers and cut yourself off from your native language. Develop a NEED to speak the next language.

Ceirin11 karma

In what way do you disagree with Chomsky that language is innate? Clearly, we are born with a capacity for language, which would lead me to agree with the statement that language is innate. So, I am guessing the word "innate" is used in a different sense?

I am also interested in what exactly you classify as "language". Where do you start, and what do you exclude, on what grounds? Is there a widely agreed upon definition?

Thank you.

DanEverett36 karma

Chomsky claims that if you do not believe in his version of UG that you are saying that there is no difference between a child and a rock. That is silly. Of course humans have a biologically founded ability to learn languages. The question is whether that ability is specific to language or emerges from general human intelligence, society, and other non-linguistic abilities. Thus it is not whether language ability is innate but how specific that ability is.

Rawbauer11 karma

Hello Professor Everett,

Thank you for doing this AMA!

How do you feel advancements in technology and our increasingly rapid rate of it's widespread adoption have changed the way we acquire language? What are the implications of this on the construction and development of culture on a global scale?

DanEverett21 karma

Technology is a HUGE help. I always say that for learning a language, use all the resources available. However, language learning also requires knowing the culture, learning the words and the pragmatics of their use, learning the phonetics and much more. There are no easy ways. Huge amounts of time and brain power are needed.

_e1guapo11 karma

Thanks for doing this! I have two questions:

  1. Fascinating that you say the influence of Pirahas helped you along your path to atheism. Would you say the Pirahas are atheists?

  2. What's a good introduction to linguistics for someone who's curious but not knowledgeable?

DanEverett30 karma

The Pirahas do not believe in any god and have no concept of a "supreme being." A good introduction to linguistics is probably wikipedia. From there there are numerous introductory texts.

Biasy11 karma

It always amazes me that they have nothing but they feel the need to cover themselves up with clothes (hence the sense of modesty)! Not every tribe (based on images of them) have this sense, so I wonder where this need comes from and if there is a correlation between the development of the "society" and it?

DanEverett44 karma

The Pirahas cover themselves up when foreigners are around because women have been raped and outsiders stare and comment.

lawpoop11 karma

I've seen your claims about lack of recursion in Pirahã sometimes characterized along these lines: the Pirahã language cannot nest clauses, instead the ideas must be expressed in separate sentences.

For example, wikipedia says

Everett stated that Pirahã cannot say "John's brother's house" but must say, "John has a brother. This brother has a house." in two separate sentences.

As a layperson with an interest in linguistics, I feel that I understand enough what a clause is-- in English and a couple other languages I've learned secondarily. But I'm not sure I know, in the abstract sense, what qualifies as a whole sentence.

In the written word, in English, it's easy enough to identify a sentence: It starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. But such things do not exist in spoken language.

So my question is this: What makes you say that "John has a brother. This brother has a house." is two separate sentences, instead of just the way that a clause is constructed in Pirahã?

DanEverett8 karma

Intonation, scope issues, types of verbs they have and so on. Much of it is discussed here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26305265/

Toffeemanstan10 karma

Id like to know more about the animal attacks, how did you escape them?

DanEverett22 karma

The large anaconda I mention in Don't sleep there are snakes just decided to fall away from me in the river instead of on me. Other snakes have struck at me and missed. I have been fortunate. A jaguar and a puma at separate times crossed my path but, perhaps they had just had lunch, ignored me.

elusiveclownface9 karma

Are you a cunning linguist?

DanEverett12 karma

As I am able.

Archknits9 karma

As an anthropologist, I can buy the theory that Homo Erectus had language.

Where do you reach the 2 million year mark (roughly the genus Homo)? If it is related to tool use, how do you incorporate the Lomekwian industry?

DanEverett11 karma

I see the evolution from Odulwan to Levallois as very important (Levallois tools required multiple steps that do not seem to be able to be learned without instruction) and evidence for symbolic shaping of tools and their care as crucial.

DanEverett8 karma

Sorry about the technical glitch and slight delay

quailtop8 karma

I was really surprised to learn Piraha has no cardinal or ordinal numbers. Wikipedia says you believe Pirahans are capable of recognizing numbers; they just choose not to.

I'm interested in understanding how innumeracy comes about. In other populations, some people have dyscalculia, a difficulty reasoning with numbers. In what ways do dyscalculiacs and Pirahan people differ in how they comprehend or recognize concepts, in your opinion, if you know?

DanEverett13 karma

Caleb Everett has a great book on this Numbers and the Making of Us in which he surveys numbers across many languages and types of systems and argues that numbers are not innate but cultural inventions.

riokid1807 karma

Do any of the Amazonian languages use the subjunctive?

DanEverett8 karma

There are certainly languages that use similar constructions, e.g. irrealis. But such terms to me are artifacts of latinate languages.

CallMeHelicase7 karma

I know very little (if anything) about linguistics, so I have no idea what recursive sentences are. Could you explain this with an example? How is the Piraha language not recursive?

DanEverett18 karma

Sure. If I saw "John saw Mary" there is no over evidence for recursion in that because recursion means to appear within another item of the same type or to be generated by a process which allows a symbol to recur on both sides of a rule (speaking loosely). But in "John said that Bill saw Mary" the sentence "Bill saw Mary" occurs within the sentence "John said ...." This might be recursive. If we see that it has no bounds and can keep going on we are much surer that it is recursion.

premedan7 karma

Are you a fan of Wallace Chafe's ideas about consciousness and language? What role do you think subjective conscious experience has on linguistic structures?

DanEverett14 karma

I am not a huge fan of Chafe, but I do believe that his work was on to something useful. My own book, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious, goes into these issues and the effect of the unconscious and culture on linguistic structures in detail.

WavesWashSands6 karma

(This is more of a comment than a question, but ...)

Most of your responses to others' views seem to have been to those on the Chomskyan front. Have you responded to criticisms (e.g. Bickerton 2009, Givón 2009, Mithun 2010) of the very Chomskyan notion of recursion itself, which you seem to tacitly assume is a coherent notion, even when saying it doesn't exist in Pirahã?

DanEverett8 karma

I have responded to those notions briefly. There is such a thing as recursion. Givon's claims (he is a friend and I like his work overall) need serious experimental backing, as do Mithun's. It is no problem for my account, though, if they are right or wrong.

X0ch1p1ll16 karma

Thank you for doing this! How hard has it been to remove your Western philosophy and sociocultural framing from understanding the underlying linguistic and cultural structure of Pirahã? Has it for you forced a reinterpretation of other linguistic typologies? What lingering effects do you see of your own linguistic framework when it comes to understanding a language that moves in such distinct opposition from a Chomskyan framework, e.g. a recontextualization of Agha's enregisterment or Silverstein's orders of indexicality in the case of a linguistic, sociocultural, and geographic isolate like Pirahã?

DanEverett12 karma

Silverstein has been a huge help, as a foremost importer of Peircean ideas into anthropology. We learn habits of thinking that are extremely difficult to get out of. I am sure that I am mistaken about many many things because of those habits. But the effort to better understand Piraha has been helpful and liberating. It has forced me to reinterpret many of the things I thought I knew.

FlamingWhisk5 karma

Two questions

How many languages do you speak?

When you connect with indigenous people how do the see the “outside” world?

DanEverett10 karma

I speak well Piraha, Portuguese, and English. I read many others. I am hardly a polyglot. Each people sees the world differently. There is no one vision of the outside for all peoples.

PemZe5 karma

Do you believe the field of neuroscience, specifically neuro-linguistics, has an important role in addressing your studies? Is there an emerging technological field you believe will contribute toward your hypothesis (even if it’s well down the road)?

DanEverett9 karma

Yes, computational work, neuroscientific work (especially the work of Evelina Fedorenko at MIT), and many other disciplines are crucial. Language is too important and too complex to be left to linguistics alone.

whyisamibutandstuff5 karma

What did you think of the TV show Bones?

DanEverett13 karma

I don't recall ever seeing it.

nuanced_optimist3 karma

Just graduated with a BA in Anthropology? What advice do you have for me as an anthropologist?

DanEverett7 karma

Think carefully about what you want to use your training to find out more about. Will this be enough training? Do you want to be a professional anthropologist? Do you want to work in business as a culture consultant? The world is wide open.

Mlvluu2 karma

DanEverett2 karma

This blog says nothing new. And it misses the points I have made in many previous works. Piraha is indeed a counter-example to the claim that languages rest on a narrow faculty of language that is just recursion (the claim of Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch) or that faculty makes no predictions whatsoever. The author of the blog misses this point, which is a common problem.

TcheQuevara2 karma

Hi, sir! Two questions!

First: Missionaries had been very important for linguistics AND anthropology over History. However, a lot of modern anthrolopological concepts, like methodological relativism, exist as a response to what today as seem as bad anthropological practices of missionaries.

I think your personal story is a very ironic twist on usual one, but still, you are a researcher with a missionary background. What's your take on relativism, the epistemologic concerns of getting involved, etc?

Second: did you ever watch the Chomky vs Foucault debate? Who did you think have won? Seriously, though, is there such a thing as human nature?

DanEverett5 karma

In my book, Dark Matter of the Mind, I argue against the concept of human nature, except in a Buddhist sense. I am a believer in relative values but not in the absolute impossibility of communication across cultures, which means I am not a radical relativist of any sort. As to Chomsky vs.Foucault debate, which I did see years ago, I don't think either of their positions wins anything.

hypnos16202 karma

This is very specific, but how is the lateralized apical-alveolar/sublaminal-labial double flap (the one where you stick out your tongue) used in speech? Is it an allophone for a specific phoneme, a substitute for prosodic features like whistling, or something else entirely?

DanEverett6 karma

It is an allophone of /g/. Historically Piraha had a /d/ with the allophones [n] and [l] (the flap you mention). But the d shifted to g, while keeping the alveolar allophones. Today the flap l is used in familiar contexts and not in direct address to foreigners who call it "chicken speech." I was among the Pirahas for about 6 months before I ever heard it. And one day they told me "If you want to sound like us you should learn to say the word like this" and produced the l sound. They can use a g sound there as well (g is an allophone of g, as well as n and l)

Tittenmeise2 karma

There are many small languages with only few speakers, sometimes only a few hundred or a few thousand native speakers. Due to globalisation and all that, those languages will die. Of course this is a loss of knowledge and culture in some way, but on the other hand this is probably going on since the "invention" of language. It chanced, it evolved, some languages died, other developed and so on. What is your opinion how this will go on in the future? In 100 years, will there still be native speakers to lets say Czech?

DanEverett3 karma

As you say it is a cycle that has always been going on. Socioeconomic factors more than any other will determine the fates of today's languages. English almost went extinct in the 12th century (those nasty French).

BuffetOfBeav2 karma

I have a degree in linguistics. So far, this has been useful, even as a professional writer. What can I do to make better use of my education?

DanEverett3 karma

A bachelor's degree? There are translation jobs, jobs at research companies, jobs for advertising agencies, lots of possibilities.

a_warm_garlic_yurt2 karma

At the end of the documentary Grammar of Happiness about your work with the Piraha, you were prevented from seeing them just prior to a planned trip. Have you been able to visit them since then? When was the last time you were able to see them?

DanEverett7 karma

I have not seen the Pirahas in the flesh since that video. However, my ex-wife lived with them all along and I stayed in regular contact with them through videos she recorded of them and sent to me. I would then record videos of me speaking in Piraha and send them to her for them.

angriguru2 karma

  1. Pirahã is quite well known for its small amount of phonemes, 6-7 consonants, 3 vowels, and 3 tones. It is often compared with !Xóõ having over 80 clicks and over 50 non-click consonants if I remember correctly. Do you think there is a potential lower/upper limit to phonemes in Human language?

  2. I watched your Harvard lecture about language in Homo-Erectus. The phoneme is a very cognitive concept, in that it is generative, in a way. All words are constructed out of phonemes, and only in languages with an absurd amount phonemes are there phonemes that only occur in a single word. Is it possible to have a language without the concept of phonemes, where there are simply "words" without morphology? Do you think Homo-Erectus would have had the same idea of a phoneme?

DanEverett9 karma

Hi. If you think about it, a computer can "say" anything we can say with only two "phonemes", 0 and 1. One can imagine a language with just one phoneme, say, /a/, where different numbers of /a/s meant different things. But the memory requirements and recognition abilities would be tremendous. So phonemes develop, not because of anything generative in the Chomskyan sense, but because of habits and cultural histories. We often see one thing which leaves out details. As we hear things as the same that are not. Phonemes, morphemes, and so on arise in this way.

anonymousinsomniac1 karma

You've spoken of your linguistic disagreements, but what are the philosophical disagreements you have with Chomsky?

DanEverett4 karma

Philosophically, Chomsky's rationalism, especially its Cartesian form, have serious flaws. Intuition, introspection, acquisition, and such ideas are just confused ways of talking about inference. But that is a strong statement and I am working on a long study of this thesis.

nendale1 karma

What a life!! Thanks for taking the time to answer :)

I became a born-again christian in my early teens and became an atheist a few years ago in my early 20s.

I have a few questions I hope you can answer about your missionary work and spritual journey:

  1. How was the experience of becoming an atheist for you?
  2. Do you think missionary work was beneficial to the communities you encountered?
  3. Did those communities already have a concept of hell or eternal suffering after death?

I was listening to the book How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and for my understading of it, your native language heavily influences the way we see and feel our experiences. I guess my questions on that would be:

  1. What were the most meaningful differences you saw between western societies and Amazonian villages when it comes to language and expresing emotions?
  2. Did you learn of any new emotions that you were not aware of or that are not easy to communicate in English?

I just bought your book on kindle, very excited to read it!


DanEverett3 karma

Cool. Let me know what you think. My main lesson from Amazonian societies is to be happy with what you have. To love your family and put it above all other ambition. To not fear death. To not worry about some god.

DanEverett3 karma

Several good questions! The experience of becoming an atheist was traumatic. It meant, for one thing, loss of employment (no one wants atheistic missionaries). It meant loss of 100% of my Christian friends, who saw me as a traitor. It means estrangement from my family. It led in part to my divorce. My missionary work had various components. The Bible translation side helped me in the language but was of zero value for the people. The medical work, land demarcation work, and advocacy work I did in my role as a missionary were all beneficial.

crnelson101 karma

This AMA is only an hour old and Chomsky has already been brought up like 35 times. Don't you think it's weird to make it a point of bringing him up so often rather than just highlight your own work?

DanEverett4 karma

No, not at all. Many people have brought him up and I responded. I also brought up Peirce and would be happy to talk more about him or more about my work. But Chomsky is the touchstone that people like to compare all other work in language to so it is unavoidable that he will come up in a discussion of news ideas on human language.

Fiestoforo1 karma

Professor Everett, my last question, if you please. Why do you think generativism has endured so many years in spite of the existence of other linguistic schools of thought?

DanEverett5 karma

This a sociological question. There are any numbers of reasons. One very important reason is that at the beginning of the field, because of Chomsky's involvement with machine translation at MIT and his support by the US military on a series of grants, it was believed that generative grammar would produce a scientific basis for machine translation (something the original director of that program, Y Bar-Hillel argued would not happen). This led to graduates of MIT taking positions of power across the US and in many other parts of the world, which led them to hire other MIT grads/generativists, and so on. It becomes self-perpetuating. There is also the strong intellectual appeal of Chomsky and his fame outside of linguistics as a spokesperson for the left and against US foreign policy (which has by and large been a positive contribution of his).

Toutouka191 karma

Given that Elon Musk’s brain chip is only a start and that in the near future people might be able to “download” languages in order to communicate, what do you think will be the future of languages?

Thank you very much.

DanEverett9 karma

I believe that intelligence is embodied and that learning a language means learning to communicate with your whole body and cultural understanding. You might one day be able to download vocabularies, but in principle it is impossible to download a language with any hope of fluency, because that is not just a matter of the brain but of the body the brain is in.

Garfield-1-23-231 karma

I've never been able to find this out, but does Noam Chomsky speak any language other than English? It always seemed like his theories were formed around English and perhaps Romance languages in general. I feel like anyone who is going to talk about universal properties of human language should know a bunch of them, from all over the world.

DanEverett4 karma

Chomsky speaks or spoke French, German, and Hebrew, at least, though I am not sure if he kept any of those up over time. One of his first jobs was teaching German.

TizardPaperclip0 karma

If I am right - I am

As a general rule, I view a statement like that as an oxymoron: Only a person who has no good evidence to prove their point would waste their time making a circular argument like that.

If you're right, then present your argument (and if you want to save it for your book, you should also save statements like "If I am right - I am" for your book as well): until then I'm going to assume that Chomsky is correct on this issue, on the grounds that he has always done a thorough job of presenting his evidence in the past.

Edit: Apparently questions that don't require a question mark get automatically deleted?

DanEverett4 karma

I am not sure what you are referring to. An answer I gave above? I expect to defend my answers and if you feel that I have not, please be specific as to how I might answer more effectively.

DanEverett3 karma

Oh, you must have gotten that to the intro to the AMA. Sorry. That was a joke.

denseacat-1 karma

Linguist? Why do you have to hate languages?
Why is that a thing even

DanEverett5 karma

Not sure what you mean? Linguists love languages.

denseacat0 karma

Me thought it was good joke, and on languages theme... racist = race hater, linguist.... language hater?
Forget it. im jsut bad at humor

DanEverett2 karma

I figured, but on the internet one never knows.

cmzraxsn-7 karma

what do you say to the claim (corroborated by elders in the community) that you spent years exploiting the pirahã people for personal gain? while you were using them to put forward your pet theories, they were still struggling and in poverty. meanwhile you were caricaturing them as examples of primitive humans in your papers.

DanEverett29 karma

No elders in the Piraha community have ever corroborated such a claim. In fact, in Piraha culture there are no elders, no leadership. It is an egalitarian society. I went to the Pirahas in 1977 as a 26 year old father and I spent decades doing medical work, helping to demarcate their land, helping them fight off incursions on their land, and teaching them math and literacy to the degree that they desired. My wife and children almost died of malaria there. I had malaria, typhoid fever, amebic dysentary and many other diseases. People threatened my life because of work to get them their land rights. I am not sure how exploitation comes in. Did Chomsky exploit English speakers to promote his pet theories? As far as my scientific work goes, I went to a community, I learned their language, I lived with them for years, and I published my results. In what sense is this exploitation. There is nothing primitive about them. I have never claimed this. The fact that they have values that are different from ours is hardly a pejorative claim. I am not sure what you mean by exploitation. 30 years of living and advocating for them and trying to understand them.