Will one researcher’s discovery deep in the Amazon destroy the foundation of modern linguistics?
By Tom Bartlett
A Christian missionary sets out to convert a remote Amazonian tribe. He lives with them for years in primitive conditions, learns their extremely difficult language, risks his life battling malaria, giant anacondas, and sometimes the tribe itself. In a plot twist, instead of converting them he loses his faith, morphing from an evangelist trying to translate the Bible into an academic determined to understand the people he’s come to respect and love.
Along the way, the former missionary discovers that the language these people speak doesn’t follow one of the fundamental tenets of linguistics, a finding that would seem to turn the field on its head, undermine basic assumptions about how children learn to communicate, and dethrone the discipline’s long-reigning king, who also happens to be among the most well-known and influential intellectuals of the 20th century.
It feels like a movie, and it may in fact turn into one—there’s a script and producers on board. It’s already a documentary that will air in May on the Smithsonian Channel. A play is in the works in London. And the man who lived the story, Daniel Everett, has written two books about it. His 2008 memoir Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, is filled with Joseph Conrad-esque drama. The new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, which is lighter on jungle anecdotes, instead takes square aim at Noam Chomsky, who has remained the pre-eminent figure in linguistics since the 1960s, thanks to the brilliance of his ideas and the force of his personality.
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