Dan Everett on the excitement of being a linguist

dan everett


One evening, Linea Flansmose Mikkelsen and Liv Moeslund Ahlgren met up in Lingoland at Aarhus University and set up a zoom-connection across the Atlantic Ocean to talk to Dan Everett. He is an American linguist, best known for his work on the Pirahã language, and is currently a professor at Bentley University. This is the first part of the interview, where we talk about Dan Everett’s career, motivations and his dream project.

In the second part of the interview, we discuss the ethical aspects of doing fieldwork.

Can you tell a bit about yourself and how you got into linguistics?

Yeah, so I got into linguistics in order to be a bible translator. I met a young woman in high school who was raised in Brazil, a child of missionaries. It was during the sixties, you know, so it was like “this is a great alternative to Western capitalist culture, I’ll go live in the Amazon and be a missionary!”. But to be a missionary I had to learn about bible translation, and to learn about bible translation I first had to take linguistics.

I really fell in love with it and I went off to the University of Campinas in São Paulo to do a PhD, and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Pirahã and defended in 1983. After a few years I moved away and along the way I became an atheist and no longer a missionary. I had been much around, and now this is my 11th year at Bentley. I was the dean there for eight years, the Vice President of Academics for one year, and now I am back to what I like best which is being a professor. Linguistics and the understanding of human language and cognition – these have become the most interesting things in the world to me. It’s what I think about from the time I go up to the time I go to bed.

Why were you sent specifically to the Pirahã village in the first place?

When we were assigned to become bible translators, we could have chosen any country. I thought about New Guinea. But then I got a letter from Steven Sheldon, and he said “I have worked with the Pirahã for nine years, and before that Arnold Heinrich worked on it for another nine years, and neither one of us have been able to figure out the language – it’s just, there is something really different about this language. We were wondering if you would be willing to take on the Pirahã?”. And you know, I was 25 years old so everything sounded easy, so I said “Sure, I’ll do that!”. Turns out, trying to figure out Pirahã was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, I’ll never do anything that hard again: It’s a language isolate, they are semi-nomads, they live in the jungle, there is lots of malaria, there are no modern conveniences, I couldn’t afford a tape recorder. It was only me and my pen and paper.

At some point, while figuring out this language and describing it, it must have occurred to you that it wouldn’t fit the linguistic theory you had been taught. Can you say something about that?

Well, when I was doing my initial research I found all kinds of things, but I believed that just because I didn’t know how to handle it, it didn’t mean that it was a serious problem. A better linguist than me would come along and show me how to handle it. Later, I went to MIT, and my office was next to Chomsky’s for a year, and he and I talked a lot. He wrote me letters of recommendation, and told everybody how well I understood his ideas. Of course, now he says that I don’t understand them at all, but back then he thought that I understood them.

After my time at MIT, I went back to the village and thought “These things really don’t fit, and the reason they don’t fit is because you can’t isolate form from meaning, you have to look at all of it in context”. And once you start doing that, you see there are some aspects of linguistic form that surprisingly enough are related to other aspects of the culture. It all fits together: the culture, the language. You can’t separate them, you can’t separate form from meaning – which has always been Chomsky’s approach. In 2004, I went to the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and started working on how to link together culture and grammar, and to see if that made any sense. And you know, that work lead to a lot of controversy. But at the same time it established a new path for me, something that I’ve been going down for now over 15 years.

It wasn’t until I was a well-established scholar that I realized, I don’t have to fit anybody’s mold. I’ve got a great job, and I can just look at Pirahã from a genuinely honest perspective. I could throw out all of this theoretical commitment and reapproach it from the perspective of trying to fit everything together and trying to actually understand it. And I’ve always found that that’s where the most interesting insights are. They don’t come from following the theory and seeing, you know. The earlier stuff I did that was very theoretical. It got me jobs and invitations to conferences, but it’s really not the most significant stuff I’ve done.

So would you say that your fields of interest have changed much during your career?

Yeah, changed dramatically. I went from studying linguistics just so it would help me understand Pirahã to really wanting to understand the nature of human language – to look at its philosophical aspects, its linguistic aspects, its cultural aspects, its psychological aspects.

What are you working on now?

These days I’m working on semiotics, the theories of Charles Sanders Peirce. I have some articles in the works, but my two book projects right now are the biography of Charles Sanders Peirce for Princeton University Press, and I’m also writing a volume for Oxford University Press called Peircean Linguistics. How would linguistics be done within a Peircean framework? Those two projects will take me a couple of years.

Do you also think that the linguistic academic landscape has changed? Is there more focus on language and culture than the cognitive aspects of language?

Well, clearly there is a whole group that still do Chomskyan linguistics, and they look at form apart from meaning. But at the same time there are other groups started. You know, there are a number of people around the world who are doing really exciting work, looking at the intersection of language, meaning and all kinds of interdisciplinary areas. So I’m excited about that, I think that’s extremely healthy for the field.

If you had unlimited time and funding, what project would you do? What would you want to learn?

I would want to do a series of volumes on a language that would include an encyclopedia, a dictionary, lots of texts, a grammar – every point in the grammar tested psychologically and experimentally, to see if it actually worked. I would have a large team working over a period of years to come up with a cognitive science perspective of this people as a whole – of which their language is just a part. That would take a long time and a lot of money.

Do you think that kind of description could be done? Could it even be done for the cultures and languages that we  already know?

It could be done, but you have to realize that nobody has the last word on stuff. Every grammar that’s been written should be rewritten – not because it’s totally wrong, but just because everybody has a different perspective. So yes, a project with a large team, hopefully a multinational team of psychologists, phoneticians, syntacticians, anthropologists and even philosophers working together for, say, a decade could produce a marvelous output! That wouldn’t mean that it’s the truth, but it would be pretty close. Then another team would do another one and it would be different and contradict the first, and that’s just the way things work.

Charles Sanders Peirce said that the truth is what awaits us at the end of all inquiry, when all people trying to solve a problem have finally reached a consensus that it is solved – and when will we get there? In nobody’s lifetime.

And that’s also the funny part, right, you always have work to do!

Yeah, I’m excited! I tell my doctor, you know, “I don’t have time to die, I’ve got all this stuff I’ve gotta get figured out”, and he says “That’s what everybody says!”. But you know, it does keep me motivated, it does keep me going, it keeps me excited. Every day when I get up, I don’t have to worry what am I gonna do with myself today. And it’s one reason I’ll never retire, you know. It’s a wonderful profession.

So are you happy that you ended up becoming a linguist?

Working in academics is great, because there is just something very exciting and noble about finding things out. I was a musician, I wanted to be a rock star during most of my early life, and I realize that what I’m doing now is just as creative, it’s just as satisfying as writing songs – more so in some ways. I have no regrets. I’m very happy with my life. There’s no profession I can imagine that is better, more exciting, more fulfilling than being a university professor. It’s just, it’s wonderful. After 40 years of doing this, I still can’t believe my luck.


Liv Moeslund Ahlgren is an MA student of linguistics at Aarhus University. She has worked with gender studies and postcolonialism as a part of her linguistics minor.

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