Understanding others requires shared concepts
“It is a noble task to try to understand others, and to have them understand you (…) but it is never an easy one”, says Everett (p. 327). This paper argues that a basic prerequisite for understanding others (and also for having them understand you) is to have some shared concepts on which this understanding can build. If speakers of different languages didn’t share some concepts to begin with then cross-cultural understanding would not be possible even with the best of will on all sides.
For example, Everett claims that Pirahã has no word for “mother”, no words for “before’ and “after”, no words for “one”, “two” and “all” and no words comparable to ‘think” and “want”. These claims are based, I believe, on faulty semantic analysis, and in particular, on a determination not to recognize polysemy under any circumstances. As I see it, at many points this stance makes nonsense of Everett’s own data and distorts the conceptual world of the Pirahã. Since he does not want to recognize the existence of any shared concepts, Everett is also not prepared to address the question of a culture-neutral metalanguage in which Pirahã and English conceptual categories could be compared. This often leads him to imposing cultural categories of English (such as “evidence”, “tolerance” and “parent”) on the conceptual world of the Pirahã. The result is a combination of exoticism and Anglocentrism which doesn’t do justice to Everett’s long and intimate engagement with the Pirahã people and their language. Sadly, it blinds him to what Franz Boas called “the psychic unity of mankind”, reflected in the common semantic features of human languages and fully compatible with the cultural shaping of their lexicons and grammars.