Monday, November 28, 2016

Don't Sleep there are Snakes/The African Sveldt

"Words. Words. Words...."  I think it was Hamlet who chanted that word endlessly during one of his crazed moments, or one of his pseudo-crazed moments depending on where you fall on that interpretive continuum.  I spent the weekend with words and was finally able to get back to Everett's book.  This anti Noam Chomsky linguist tells a fine story woven with lots of intellectual and sociological goodness.  

Chomsky was the fellow who decided to simplify our understanding of language structure in a system he called "transformational grammar". Let me tell you, this man and his system caused untold sleepless nights for me.  I began teaching the year my district adopted a new text for Freshman which including a switch from traditional to t-grammar. What a nightmare.  It made no sense to me and I was lucky to stay one page ahead of my students.  Halfway through the year, after a momentous struggle with that crap, I discovered that the other 9th grade English teacher had secretly stashed the new text and had reverted to the tried and true system we were all used to.  

Chomsky asserts that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure no matter what the sociocultural differences.  He rejects B.F. Skinner's notion that we are born with a tabula rasa - a blank canvas - and that language is a learned behavior.  I guess Chomsky would think that with some rudimentary study, it is possible to decode any and all language systems.

Along comes Daniel Everett who blows that theory all to heck.  He spent decades among a Brazilian tribe called the Piraha.  Their language appears to be 100% independent, having no relationship to any other known language.  They have no words for color or for niceties like "please" and "thank you."  They do not say "Good night" at the end of the day, instead warning "Don't sleep, there are snakes."  And there are!  And tarantulas. An vicious jungle animals.  The only number word they is "one".  

Here's a fun counting story.  While attempting to decipher their numbering system, Everett dropped a stick to the ground."  "One stick has fallen" he was taught in the native tongue. Then he dropped two sticks. The statement to define that action was "More than one stick fell to the ground."  

More than a linguistic study, the book chronicles Everett's evolution from missionary to atheist.  

Needing a break from the heavy duty language lesson, I read a few chapters in the book at the right.  The title pretty much sums it up.  I was expecting this to be a book of pictures and related language bloopers, and for sure, there is some of that. But it's mainly a collection of essays showing how complex and inventive English is and how, ironically, it works even when it doesn't.  Menaker manages to make logical sense out of many misspoken phrases including "never seizes to amaze me", "the throws of packing" and "I am sobbing wet".  All good fun.

Friend Steve recently inquired how my year of mystery reading went.  I'm not telling.  Let it be a mystery to you.

Thanks for stopping by.
Posts will be hit or miss in the coming weeks....although I will do my best to read a couple kids' books for you.