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School of Arts, Languages and Cultures

Challenging claims about human language

Amazonian field work challenges accepted theories on universal structures in language and its role in cognition.

Illustration for 'Don't sleep there are snakes'
'Don't Sleep, There are Snakes' was selected as book of the Week on Radio 4 - generating over 50 pages of comments. Over 100,000 copies sold by autumn 2011.

Professor Dan Everett's research on the Amazonian Pirahã language has controversially challenged claims that all human beings have an innate language faculty. 

Through popular science books, media coverage and film, he has stimulated debate on what it means to be human in relation to language.

Professor Dan Everett’s exploration of the Pirahã language has led him to challenge prominent beliefs about human language and how language relates to how people think.

He describes his fieldwork in the Amazon region in the popular book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes. This has reached a large audience and introduced the general public to new ideas about the role of language in society, perception and cognition.

Key achievements:

  • Don't Sleep, There are Snakes nominated for US National Book Award
  • Translated into French, German, Japanese and Mandarin
  • Selected as book of the Week on Radio 4 – generating over 50 pages of comments
  • Over 100,000 copies sold by autumn 2011

His second book, Language: The Cultural Tool, stimulated intense debate within academic circles, but the ideas were also highlighted to the general public through significant media coverage:

  • Articles in the Guardian newspaper and the BBC
  • Coverage and reviews in international newspapers including Der Spiegel, The New Yorker and Frankfurter Allgemeine
  • Film documentary 'The Grammar of Happiness', which won the 'Jury of Young Europeans Prize'

This popular book reached a large audience and introduced the general public to new ideas about the role of language in society, perception and cognition.

Our research

Professor Everett is a specialist on Amazonian languages. From his nearly two decades of fieldwork on the Pirahã language, he developed a series of conclusions that radically contradict some major linguistic theories. He especially challenges Chomsky’s claim that all human beings are endowed with an innate language faculty.

Professor Everett discovered that the Pirahã language:

  • Lacks structures of 'recursion' – clauses embedded within sentences
  • Does not have a system for referring to the sequence of natural numbers in a way that we would recognise.

These findings indicate that recursion is not a fundamental component of the human faculty of language, as usually supposed, and that numbers are a cultural invention rather than a linguistic universal.

Lead academic