A sweeping exploration of the relationship between the language we speak and our perception of such fundamentals of experience as time, space, color, and smells.
We tend to assume that all languages categorize ideas and objects similarly, reflecting our common human experience. But this isn’t the case. When we look closely, we find that many basic concepts are not universal, and that speakers of different languages literally see and think about the world differently.
Caleb Everett takes readers around the globe, explaining what linguistic diversity tells us about human culture, overturning conventional wisdom along the way. For instance, though it may seem that everybody refers to time in spatial terms—in English, for example, we speak of time “passing us by”—speakers of the Amazonian language Tupi Kawahib never do. In fact, Tupi Kawahib has no word for “time” at all. And while it has long been understood that languages categorize colors based on those that speakers regularly encounter, evidence suggests that the color words we have at our disposal affect how we discriminate colors themselves: a rose may not appear as rosy by any other name. What’s more, the terms available to us even determine the range of smells we can identify. European languages tend to have just a few abstract odor words, like “floral” or “stinky,” whereas Indigenous languages often have well over a dozen.
Why do some cultures talk anthropocentrically about things being to one’s “left” or “right,” while others use geocentric words like “east” and “west”? What is the connection between what we eat and the sounds we make? A Myriad of Tongues answers these and other questions, yielding profound insights into the fundamentals of human communication and experience.
In the Amazonian region of Brazil, where anthropologist Caleb Everett spent much of his childhood, speakers of Tupi-Kawahíb never refer to time ‘passing by.’ Indeed, the language has no word for ‘time.’ By contrast, most European languages have few abstract words for odours, whereas languages in a number of other cultures have more than a dozen. Everett’s fascinating book—based on collaboration with biologists, chemists, political scientists and engineers—ponders such differences between the world’s 7,000-plus languages.
An assured guide to new thinking about how language shapes the way we see the world—at a time when thousands of languages are vanishing.
Historically, academics have looked for commonalities among languages and focused mainly on those used by Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies. But, Everett says, the tide is shifting…His book synthesizes his own and others’ research that brings in data from non-WEIRD languages and broadens our understanding of how words affect cognition, including how we process the concepts of time, space, color, and kinship.
Offers readers a tantalizing glimpse into the wide variety of human speech patterns evident in the world today.
An enlightening examination of human communication based on the findings of linguist fieldworkers—himself included—as well as researchers in areas such as cognitive psychology, data science, and respiratory medicine.
Everett relates complex linguistic discussions in accessible terms, and each page is full of thought-provoking insights.
Blending an ethnographer’s richness with an experimentalist’s clarity, Everett adroitly explains how what we’ve learned from data-driven studies of a myriad of tongues–from Amazonia and Africa to Australia and Austronesia–has dramatically shifted our understanding of the origins and nature of our species’ most salient ability: language. Far from being an isolated projection of innate psychology, languages evolve like other aspects of culture, adapting to our ecological contexts, social norms, acoustic environments, and cognitive inclinations. Languages also shape how speakers think, feel, and even perceive. With balance and breadth, this book offers an easy entry into a fascinating, though often ferocious, interdisciplinary field.
A marvelous tour of all that is amazing, perplexing, satisfying, and mysterious about languages and the humans who speak them. Everett combines up-to-date analyses with vivid descriptions of the diverse tools that humans use when they speak. His book drills down into deep mysteries but does so with a light hand, leading readers from one big question to the next. An essential read for anyone who wants to understand what we now know about language and how profoundly that understanding has recently evolved.
Do different languages create different experiences of the world? Everett offers up a wealth of nuanced insights on the state of the science to replace both the old exoticism and the lazy skepticism. This is an overdue and fascinating book.
A gift for language is a large part of what makes us human, but as Everett shows, that gift manifests itself in an astonishing spectrum of ways. As previous certainties about the structure of language erode and dissolve under pressure from new discoveries, researchers in many fields are finally grasping the importance of linguistic diversity. This is a careful yet deeply provocative work.
This book resoundingly demonstrates just how different languages can be and what those divergences reveal about us as a species. Based on both cutting-edge research and the author’s own experiences in the Amazon, where he grew up and conducted fieldwork, it will appeal to anyone who is interested in the science of language.
- 288 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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