Daniel Everett
Battle for the Origin of Language

Daniel Everett was 26 when he first entered the Amazon rainforest as a missionary, with his wife and three young children in tow. He was tasked with converting the remote Pirahã tribe to Christianity, a task he would fail, in the process losing his own faith and tearing his family apart.

However, in the years he spent in the Brazilian Amazon Everett succeeded in one area that no one had before. At first simply by pointing to the things in the jungle around him and getting the Pirahã to name them, Everett was eventually able to master the Pirahã language. What he discovered was a method of communication so strange and unique that it sparked a fierce debate among linguists all over the world.

The Pirahã language has no past or future tense, no numbers or method of counting, no names for colours, and most crucially, no evidence of recursion – the feature that was thought to exist in all of the human language, suggesting a genetic component of language.

Everett is now locked in an intellectual row with the “father of modern linguistics” Noam Chomsky, over the existence of universal grammar. His new book, Dark Matter of the Mind, continues to explore his remarkable findings, suggesting that our culture plays a major role in structuring language and the way we use it.

You recently wrote a book entitled Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Dark Matter of the Mind is an explanation of the ways that the knowledge, and the social roles we have, the different experiences we go through as individuals and as members of societies, affect us in ways that we are not even aware of. I mean, why do I stand one way when a Pirahã man stands with his legs crossed and his arms folded over his chest?

There are a lot of things that are deep within our unconscious that are shaped by our culture and that we can’t talk about. There are other things that we don’t talk about that are also shaped by our culture. Why do we say red, white and blue, instead of white, blue and red? Why do we structure our sentences shorter or longer? These are the things that we pick up from the society around us, from our different cultural experiences, and they come together to make us the individuals that we are.

I go into some detail in the book about human nature, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle was the first one to talk about the mind as a blank slate. By that he did not mean that there was nothing in the mind, he meant that there were no concepts in the mind unless they came through the senses.

Plato was the opposite and believed that the senses added very little to what we were born with, that we were born with the concepts that were going to control us. I trace those ideas from Plato to Adolf Bastian, all the way to Noam Chomsky, and from Aristotle to Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, to myself. I argue that it’s culture rather than nature.

"The last thing on Earth the Pirahã needed was Jesus. In fact after living with them for some time I realised that it was the last thing on Earth that I needed as well."

Daniel Everett on how he lost his faith in the Amazon

Let’s go back a bit and talk about the very unorthodox way you began your career in linguistics. You were working as a missionary in the Amazon with the Pirahã tribe for a long time.

Yes, in my teenage years I thought that religion was a pretty silly idea but then I met a family of missionaries who had been living an extremely interesting and exotic life in the Amazon. Since this was the 60s, an extremely interesting and exotic life was what I was after, and although I had always wanted to be a musician when I got to know this family and got to really like them, I converted to Christianity.

Their daughter became my girlfriend and then my wife, and a few years later when we had completed our Bible training and I had a degree from Moody Bible Institute in foreign missionary work, we went off to Brazil. When we got to Brazil I started living with Amazonian groups and pursuing graduate work at a Brazilian university.

But I realised that religion didn’t satisfy me in this new cultural context I found myself in, and also that the last thing on Earth the Pirahã needed was Jesus. In fact, after living with them for some time I realised that it was the last thing on Earth that I needed as well. Through their influence and through my friendships with many Brazilian intellectuals I abandoned Christianity and belief in any god whatsoever.
That led me to want to pursue a career in science, in anthropology and linguistics. This was very hard on my family. After living for almost eight years in the Amazon, we moved to Pittsburgh where I became an assistant professor in linguistics.

What did you experience with the Pirahã that made you lose your faith? And why do you think they have no need for religion?

Well firstly they were the happiest people I had ever seen. They were laughing and having fun all day, and asking intelligent questions. They weren’t superstitious in the way that you might expect an Amazonian tribe to be. They didn’t believe in spirits. They have certain jungle entities that they talk about that I mistranslated initially as ‘spirit’. These jungle entities are fictional, to me at least, I still can’t decide if they are fictional to the Pirahã. They seem to be neither fact nor fiction by our Western standards.

As I would read to them the stories of the bible that I had translated into their language, they would assume that I was talking about things that I had seen. If I told them that Jesus performed a miracle, they assumed that I had seen that, and they were quite astounded by it. But as they questioned me and realised that I hadn’t seen any of this stuff and I didn’t know anyone who had seen any of this stuff, they were very bemused as to why I was telling them about it. And I thought, “yeah, why am I telling them this?”

I realised I was being unethical by telling them these things as fact. This combination of their happiness, their satisfaction with life, them pointing out to me the intellectual flaws of my own position, it all led me to acknowledge that I no longer believed in what I was telling them.

Religion got me off drugs when I was a teenager so I’m very grateful for that, and I don’t regret having gone through this period. I became a Christian when I was 17 in 1968, and I didn’t admit to myself that I wasn’t a Christian until about 1982, and I didn’t tell my family until 2002. Part of the problem is that when you’re a Christian and you’re having doubts, there’s a whole bunch of mechanisms built into both the Bible and Christian social structures to help keep you believing. There was also the fact that I’d married someone who had dedicated her life to Christianity and her faith was unwavering, my children were all believers, and my entire income and professional standing was based on being a missionary and a pastor.

So there was a fair amount of social pressure to stop me from announcing to everyone, “hey I don’t believe this stuff anymore.”

Looking back now I probably should have told everyone that I wasn’t a Christian long before I did. Once I got the position at the University of Pittsburgh I relaised I didn’t need to pretend anymore.

What is so unique and incredible and the Pirahã people and their language?

They are so unusual in so many ways. When I was asked to go there as a missionary I was told that several other people had been sent in the past and they had all spent one or two nights there and basically said, “I never want to come back here.”

Part of the reason for that is the Pirahã language is not related to any other known living language, so you can’t rely on any similar languages to help you figure it out. The Pirahã people don’t use many tools, their culture is extremely subtle, and to the observer unfamiliar to them it doesn’t look as if they have any culture. They seem to lie around and gossip all day. In fact they have a very rich culture but it takes understanding their language to see that. Their language is very hard to learn and they only speak Pirahã .

Malaria also made it tough. I’ve had malaria several times, my wife and my oldest daughter almost died from malaria. We had dysentery, typhoid fever, and our lives were threatened by the Pirahã. There are challenges to being a white family living in the middle of the Amazon.

“There are challenges to being a white family living in the middle of the Amazon.”

How were your lives threatened?

Well, we were only just getting to know the Pirahã, and I was a missionary. . . I didn’t make a serious effort initially to understand their culture. The Pirahã weren’t sure about me either and I began to come between them and the Brazilian river traders who would get the Pirahã to give them Brazil nuts, and the chewing gum based sorva, and rubber.

The way that the Pirahã were usually paid was in cane-sugar rum, cachaça. That was against the law and the Brazilian Indian Agency had told me that if I saw anyone giving Indians cachaça I should tell them that it’s illegal. So I did. And I also told the Pirahã that they shouldn’t drink it. The reaction of both parties was natural. Who the hell was this American to tell us how to behave? One Brazilian man gave the Pirahã a lot of cachaça and a shotgun to kill me.

I woke up that night and heard the Pirahã talking very loudly. They were drunk and I heard one of them say in Pirahã , “I will kill him, I’m not afraid to kill him.” I realised it was me they were talking about and I was very surprised. I got up and found my gym shorts and a pair of flip flop, and I walked in the dark through the jungle to where they were, about 100 yards away. Their hut was very poorly lit with a small kerosene lamp that the Brazilians had given them and they didn’t see me come in.

I started picking up the shot guns and the arrows and they noticed me. I said, “Hi, how’s everybody doing?” and then I walked out with all the weapons. They were up all night yelling threatening things and it was quite scary for my eldest daughter who was eight. My other daughter was five and my son was two.

The next morning they apologised and told me they would never do that again. Of course they did do it again. Someone once asked me what it’s like seeing a Pirahã man drunk, and I said it was much like seeing my own father drunk. They became werewolves. It’s a total transformation of their personality.

That was at the beginning of my time among the Pirahã . I learned a lot of lessons and the Pirahã  learned a lot of lessons, and we forged a very solid friendship that more than compensated for those early nights. When I was sick I came to realise that they would do anything to help me if I needed it, as I would do anything to help them.

The Pirahã people

When was the last time you spent time with the Pirahã ? I know you were at one time being blocked from visiting them by FUNAI (Brazilian National Indian Foundation).

I’m still blocked. I haven’t been there since 2009 and the years have gone by so quickly. There is a possibility that I will be going back in April and that will depend on authorisation from the Brazilian government. But there are several Brazilian scientists and intellectuals that are friends of mine and are lobbying on my behalf very strongly.  

So you published this paper in 2005 about the Pirahã language and it caused a huge debate and quite a big backlash from other linguists. Why were the things you were saying so controversial?

Well actually if you read what I said, I think it’s fairly innocuous. The Pirahã don’t use numbers, and they don’t use recursion in their language. I tied a number of these phenomena together and said that these were controlled by culture.

Dark Matter of the Mind is my theory of culture because many people wanted to know what I really mean by culture, so finally I’ve answered that with this book. But basically that initial paper was the idea that contrary to what Noam Chomsky and Marc Hauser had claimed, the ability to do recursion was not the basis of human language, because I’d found a language that didn’t have recursion. Pirahã was the black swan that proved that not all swans are white.

What I expected was for people to point out flaws in my argumentation but in fact for the first several years all I got was name-calling. So it’s a controversy that is very strong and has been going on for over 10 years now.

Do you think that the level of criticism you received had something to do with your background as a missionary, that perhaps people didn’t view you as a credible academic?

That was a definite part of it. The funny thing is that I was a well-known linguist long before this paper came out. My first three PhD students from the University of Pittsburgh are now full professors, and other students of mine have very prestigious positions. But I don’t have the academic pedigree.

I was giving a talk to a group of philosophers once and one of them said, “Well he has degrees from the Moody Bible Institute and a third world university so this ought to be interesting.” At another talk someone said in their introduction, “the fact that Dan has the educational background that he does and has still been published in these journals, and has the prestigious job that he has, is a violation of every generalisation we think of in academics.”

So yes my background has always played a role. But I’ve published 13 books in the last 20 years, I’ve published a lot of articles, and debated people about this at MIT and in Europe. I think people realise that even if they think I’m wrong it’s not going to be easy to show that.

"Pirahã was the black swan that proved that not all swans are white."

Daniel Everett on how the Pirahã upset the academic world

How personal is the dispute between yourself and Chomsky? People seem to love to put you two up against each other as rivals, but what is your relationship with him actually like?

It’s certainly personal with his followers. I’ve been called all kinds of names, an exploiter, a liar, unethical. Chomsky has called me a joke and said that he can’t take me seriously. But before this Chomsky wrote letters of recommendation for me to get my job at Pittsburgh and for my promotion to full professor. He was very supportive, until he wasn’t.

So is it personal? Yeah I think so. I wrote to Chomsky one time after his wife died to tell him I was sorry to hear that Carol died, and he said, “thank you, that means a lot to me.” Then I saw some headline in a Brazilian newspaper where he called me a charlatan. I asked him if he had said that and he just said, “yes.” I said, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” And he said, “No you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” So I would say our relationship has known better moments.

This debate is all about the issue of recursion. Could you briefly define what recursion is?

I held the first international conference ever held on recursion, at Illinois State University back in 2007 and there were a number of invited speakers. One thing that surprised me was that almost everybody had a different definition of recursion.

There’s a lot of dispute about whether it’s the same in computer science and mathematics. But in linguistics recursion is the ability to put one thing inside another thing of the same type. So if I have a sentence like, “John said,” and I can put another sentence in it, so “John said that Bill said that Mary said that Peter said that John’s a nice guy” That’s an example of recursion.

If a Russian doll could continue on forever it would be a great example of recursion. It’s not just being able to put one thing inside another, it’s the ability to do it forever. So let’s say you found a sentence in Pirahã that was “John said that Bill’s a nice guy.” That’s still not recursion. I claim that the Pirahã language has no recursion. It doesn’t even have those simple sentences that are similar to recursion.

So how would a Pirahã person describe that same thing?

They would say, “John spoke. Bill is nice.” And they would have a little suffix on there that would indicate that this is old information. They can interpret that as John said that Bill is nice. But they can also interpret it as two separate events. You can do the same thing in English. You can say, “You drink. You drive. You go to jail.”

Those are three sentences without recursion, but we interpret them as, “If you drink and you drive then you will go to jail.” So I try to tell people that even in English you can get by without recursion. It’s a useful device for processing information but it’s not necessary, even in English. So it’s not surprising that there are some languages like Pirahã  (I don’t think it’s the only language) that simply choose not to use recursion at all in the sentence structure.

You can think recursively. If I tell a story like, “John came in the house. John sat down. Mary spoke to John. John said bye.” There’s no recursion in any of those sentences but the whole thing together is a recursive story. So we can think recursively even if we choose not to have it in our sentences. Chomsky believes that if it’s not in the sentence that’s the real problem. It’s not enough that it’s in thought. I explain in a number of articles that the question about thinking recursively is whether we use it in language because we can already think that way, or we can think that way because it’s in language. Chomsky doesn’t claim that it’s a general part of human cognition, he claims it’s part of the language and so that’s where I think he is dead wrong.

“Chomsky [above] became famous for his ideas of deep structure and surface structure, but that’s been dead for 30 years.There are very few ideas that he’s had over the years that have been maintained. “


There are some Pirahã  people who are now learning Portuguese. If the Pirahã can use recursion in Portuguese, does this alter your conclusions in any way?

That’s actually not correct. It’s been claimed by Chomsky and others that there are several Pirahã who speak Portuguese. That’s false. There’s only one who can speak Portuguese fluently and he was not raised in the village. His father was Pirahã  but his mother was from a different group. He doesn’t actually even speak Pirahã  very well.

His native language is Portuguese. Of all the Pirahã, whose native language is  Pirahã, and that’s everyone but him, no one speaks Portuguese. According to Jeanette Sakel, a researcher in England who has been to the Pirahã to study their Portuguese, those  Pirahã  who do know some Portuguese speak it without recursion. That’s fascinating.

But let’s say that a Pirahã  learned recursion in Portuguese. That really doesn’t say anything. If there is a single language without recursion, and the people can learn another language with recursion, they can certainly think recursively, but there is still a language without recursion and Chomsky’s definition of language involves recursion.

He talks about something he calls the ‘basic operation merge’ that builds all languages. Therefore any language without recursion, whether the people can think about it in another language or not, that language is a counter example to what Chomsky says. This is a point that is often overlooked, deliberately I think by his defenders, but it’s a vital point.

You have obviously created a lot of discussion about the Pirahã language and the Pirahã  as people. Do you feel conflicted about drawing so much attention to them? Or worried about their way of life being corrupted by outsiders who want to study them?

Well there’s only one other person studying them right now, a young woman who goes in by herself. There are eight villages of Pirahã  in the rainy season and they are scattered across 300 linear miles of river. So one village might get three visits in a year, but another village might never see anyone ever. The only person that visits all of the villages is me when I’m there. Actually there is also the Brazilian Health Organisation who regularly visits all of the Pirahã villages and gives them vaccinations, and looks at their health. They are doing a great job. That’s one reason the  Pirahã  population has gone from about 110 in the 60s to as many as 700, maybe even 1000.

"I think that the language we speak today is the output of 2 million years of evolution."

On his forthcoming book How Language Began

So where are you at now in terms of proving your theories of language? Are more people coming around to your own views?

One of my disadvantages is that I’m at a small private university, in a very nice position for me personally, but without the kind of PhD students I once had. You have to have students to have influence and I don’t. But I would say that a number of people are in fact taking this very seriously and perhaps for independent reasons don’t find Chomsky’s work interesting anymore. That includes some of his own colleagues at MIT.

Chomsky became famous for his ideas of deep structure and surface structure, but that’s been dead for 30 years. There are very few ideas that he’s had over the years that have been maintained. If you were supporting Chomsky you would say that those ideas have transmogrified into more advanced ideas, but some of us on the outside don’t see it that way. We see it as simply going back to the drawing board. His last major idea now is that recursion is the basis for language. He’s put all of his eggs in that basket so if that’s wrong, there’s not much left. I think that’s why he reacts so strongly to my discovery.

Lastly, can you tell us about your next book How Language Began, which will be released this summer?

I’m very excited about this book. It’s about the evolution of language and the evolution of humans. Many people believe that language began fairly recently, about 50,000 years ago, or perhaps 100,000 years ago, and that there was no language of significance before Homo sapiens came on the scene.

But we have examples of Homo erectus settlements on the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen, we’re talking 2 million years ago. And there are other settlements such as the island of Flores in Indonesia, surrounded by the strongest currents in the world. For the Homo erectus population to go there they would have had to sail there. So that and also looking at the evolution of the brain and the vocal apparatus leads me to conclude that language began as long as two million years ago. I think that the language we speak today is the output of 2 million years of evolution and not some genetic mutation that suddenly allowed us to do recursion.

Photograph: David Levene/Guardian News & Media.