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20150220 Language: The Cultural Tool



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The language is the communication tool that makes humans what they are. Without language it would not be possible to achieve group cohesion specific to the humans, which gives them huge evolutionary advantages and more than fully justify huge brain and long period to maturity required for effective use of this communication tool.


Introduction: The Gift of Prometheus

Author defines language as tool and compares it with fire in its importance for human survival. The difference between fire and language however is that language is purely human invention and does not exists without humans. This tool allows handling problems created by need to maintain cohesion of human groups and effective communication it requires. The book reviews specifics of these problems, solutions provided by language, actual application of these solutions, and variety of such solution due to variety of cultures.

PART ONE: Problems

Chapter One: Language as a Social Tool

Author starts with description of problems he encountered as anthropologist and missionary in the new and completely unfamiliar environment. The discussion is mainly around issue whether language is the biological tool and inherent part of human personality, or it is an invented cultural tool used to respond to survival related pressures of environment.

Chapter Two: From Fire to Communication

This is about the nature of language as communication tool. It discusses whether it has genetic origin or just genetic predisposition for development, whether its grammar inherent for all versions of human languages or it could be different from language to language. There is also discussion about invention of language and its relation to use of fire. The fire created more need in cooperation and lead to discovery of other minds and development of language as tool to connect minds.

Chapter Three: Crossing the Communication Threshold

This discussion is partially about power of the words and partially about theory of communication when language services to overcome noise and deliver message. It also includes discussion on coherence of series of words and sentences build into a story capable to transfer highly complex message from one brain to another.

Chapter Four: Does Plato Have a Problem?

This is discussion about link between language and knowledge based on Plato’s ideas of an a priori knowledge and data supporting or debasing this idea. It also goes into more details about genetic base for language and human brain’s language related areas.

PART TWO: Solutions

Chapter Five: Universals and Faculties

This is about language being a tool that provides solutions for problems encountered in each specific culture. It again returns to discussion of language not being preordained faculty based on genes because there is no language organ to be found and even more important, Chomsky’s ideas not fit with expanded knowledge of diverse languages and their radically different grammars. Here author applies his extensive experience with various tribes and languages acquired during anthropological research. It also refers to the fact that language is learned from other people and all cases when individual were deprived of help from other humans they did not develop anything like language ability.

Chapter Six: How to Build a Language

This is somewhat technical discussion of language structure, its flexibility and continuing development. It applies an interesting way of analysis by using correct grammar and words in meaningless or unrealistic combinations. It also provides T-model of language with top being mental dictionary going down to sentences / semantics on one side and syntactic / sound structure on other side.

Chapter Seven: The Platforms for Language

This is about different platforms used for language from sound based on human anatomy to various writing methods, signs, everything else conceivable.

PART THREE: Applications

Chapter Eight: Aristotle’s Answer: Interaction and the Construction of Cultural Signs

This is about process of learning language and whether it is based on inborn instinct of language acquisition or it is specific use of general ability to learn new staff. One of interesting facts is that children seem to learn sentences as they learn signs as whole. It also discusses hierarchical structure of languages and human expectation of hierarchy in complex systems. Lots of space also allocated to links between culture, language, behavior, and underlying knowledge that defines it.

Chapter Nine: Language the Tool

Here author returns to his main concept that language is just a tool for communication and community building. It also includes discussion about situation when multiple languages used by people and how they interconnect. Author supports teaching Ebonics and bilingual education on the basis that to press with English puts children with diverse background into disadvantage. Finally link between language and culture is demonstrated by examples of parallels in culture and language acquisition by children and by linguistic impact of cultural notions about hierarchy of relatives in various cultures.

PART FOUR: Variations

Chapter Ten: Language, Culture, and Thinking

This time it is impact of language on the way of thinking that is reviewed. One of the most interesting examples is language without numbers and correspondingly complete lack of quantitative thinking in culture where it is used. Another example is of languages in which speaker’s body is not used as the center of coordinates so there is no left/right or up/down.

Chapter Eleven: YOU Drink. YOU Drive. YOU Go to Jail. Cultural Effects on Grammar

This is even more technical review of link between culture and grammar. It is discussed using example of recursion.

Chapter Twelve: Welcome to the Freak Show

The final chapter is an attempt to prove value of diversity of languages and call to save this diversity as much as possible. It also looks at various creoles, pidgins, and other languages as subsets and/or combinations.

Conclusion: Grammar of Happiness

The final conclusion of this book is that language reveals the engine of our souls, our mind and it is cognitive fire of human life.


I think that the main point that language is cognitive tool absolutely necessary for building understanding of the world internally in human mind and maintain communications and cooperation with other humans is very valid and I fully agree with it. However I think that value of diversity of languages is overstated because every language is inseparably linked to the culture and when culture gets destroyed by encounter with other technologically and politically more powerful culture, the language has little chances to survive. It could be maintained artificially or even restored from practically nothing as contemporary Hebrew, but it could happen only in exceptional cases when group of people is isolated and is under hostile pressure. The normal development leads to merge of cultures and consequently merge of languages so diversity of languages serves no other purpose then artificially maintain weaker culture. It is unfortunate because the real human beings pay price for this anthropological indulgence in form of less communications, less cooperation, and consequently lower quality of life due to unnecessary cultural and linguistic isolation.

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