Linguistics and Faith

A while back, one of our blog readers sent me a link to this fascinating New Yorker article, “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto, which combines academic controversy, the interplay between theory and practice, and the (dis)integration of faith, life, and learning. It tells the story of Dan Everett, professor of linguistics at Illinois State University, a former evangelical Christian and Bible translator with SIL who, as he advanced in his academic career, lost his faith in Christ.

The heart of the article involves an academic debate over the nature of language. I’m not a linguist, so I won’t try to recreate the argument, but Everett, based on his life of work with the Pirahã, an isolated tribe in the Amazon with a very unusual and difficult-to-learn language, has taken a strong stance against Noam Chomsky and his theory of universal grammar.

The article, though, also deals with Everett’s journey of faith.

As a teen-ager, Everett played the guitar in rock bands (his keyboardist later became an early member of Iron Butterfly) and smoked pot and dropped acid, until the summer of 1968, when he met Keren Graham, another student at El Capitan High School, in Lakeside. The daughter of Christian missionaries, Keren was brought up among the Satere people in northeastern Brazil. She invited Everett to church and brought him home to meet her family. “They were loving and caring and had all these groovy experiences in the Amazon,” Everett said. “They supported me and told me how great I was. This was just not what I was used to.” On October 4, 1968, at the age of seventeen, he became a born-again Christian. “I felt that my life had changed completely, that I had stepped from darkness into light—all the expressions you hear.” He stopped using drugs, and when he and Keren were eighteen they married. A year later, the first of their three children was born, and they began preparing to become missionaries.

This journey, as it turns out, would be crucial to his later academic career. An early interest in linguistics (spawned by My Fair Lady) was nurtured by SIL, and Everett turned out to be naturally gifted in learning and translating difficult languages. For several years, he and Keren bounced between the academy and the missions field, alternating between advanced degrees and Bible translation. Along the way, Everett lost his faith and later his marriage. Keren, meanwhile, remains a Bible translator among the Pirahã.

I recommend reading the article. There’s much there, more than I am able to reflect on here. One aspect that could be teased out is the privileging of Everett’s conclusions about the Pirahã language over Keren’s, even though Keren has spent more time among them and even Everett admits she knows aspects of the language better than he. But then, Everett is an academic, while Keren is a missionary.

If you are interested in reading more, I also commend Dan Everett’s home page, which provides links to many more articles and interviews with him. He also has a book out about his experiences, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. An interview with the BBC on his home pages promises to be “about how the Pirahãs affected [him] spiritually,” though I haven’t listened to it yet.

Any linguistics or language readers who have thoughts about Everett’s work, or the connections between linguistics and Christianity? I know little about this discipline, so I’d very curious to hear about some of the points of integration between faith and linguistics, or areas in which the Christian faith is challenged by or challenges the academic norm.

(HT to Elizabeth for reminding me about this terrific article. Thanks!)

4/11/2012: Updated home page link.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Lhynard commented on February 5, 2009 Reply

    I’m not a linguist professionally, but it is one of my greatest loves as a hobby.

    Sadly, modern linguistics is much like other sciences in that it comes with a pervading world view associated with it that most famous linguists espouse, even though it does not logically follow that the study of linguistics should lead to such a view. It has many elements of post-modernism, holding a blatantly flaw conclusion that, since no language anywhere is precise, there cannot be any true meaning in life.

    But as far as I see it, there is not a shred of conflict between the study of language and Christian faith. If anything, the study of linguistics has made me a better scholar of the Bible and how to interpret what it says.

  • Tom Grosh commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    A difficult article to read. I remember Dan’s active sharing of his faith at U. of Pittsburgh and decision to return to the mission field. At times I wondered ‘where he ended up.’

    Dave Snoke commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    I hate to be a cynic, but the first thing I thought when I read that he lost his faith was “I bet he left his wife.” That was confirmed a few sentences later. The areas of our lives are not separable, and mid-life crisis gets entangled with a lot of other things, and our thinking. Christianity = it is wrong to leave my wife = Christianity must be unnatural …

    In regard to Chomsky, the significance of his theories are contained in the following quotes:
    “To come to know a human language would be an extraordinary intellectual achievement for a creature not specifically designed to accomplish this task.”

    Chomsky himself has long demonstrated a lack of interest in language origins and expressed doubt about Darwinian explanations. “It is perfectly safe to attribute this development to ‘natural selection,’ ” Chomsky has written, “so long as we realize that there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.”

    Chomsky sounds like an Intelligent Design theorist here, and his theories have been used in apologetics– Dan even used this argument with me when I talked with him here at Pitt years ago. Thus there are many people who would like to “take down” Chomsky.

    For myself, I think Chomsky’s views are interesting but not crucial to Christian apologetics. Ultimately, they seem to fall into the same type of thinking that has failed in many other areas– trying to find some physical attribute which distinguishes people from animals, when to me, the difference is spiritual– the image of God.

    Reading that New Yorker essay, I could not help feeling that Everett sounds like the typical cultural imperialist who says “I know everything about these simple people, and I can tell you they have no deep, complex thoughts.” Then someone who really knows them finds years later that they do not make a habit of telling their deep thoughts to outsiders. Overall, his attitude could be called bombastic– an occupational hazard of academics, and almost as though he was “showing off” “his” tribe. Keren’s attitude seemed much more humble and I think likely to bear fruit. Dan refuses to sing with them? But he already knows all one needs to know about their language?

      Greg Walkup commented on October 6, 2009 Reply

      When I read your comments, my great intellectual response was “yes!”. Someone who gets this pseudo-sophistication regarding Christian faith and practice…I think the number of scientists and academians in general who do not “believe” do so out of contempt for Christian morals rather than comtempt for a Christ created universe. Thank you for your pointed response!

    Dave Snoke commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    Just a few more observations:
    1) The fact that the tribe now wears western dress instead of going naked seems very important to me. Why should they change their ways, if the concepts of westerners have no impact on them? Does this mean they felt shame, or anger, being ogled at by westerners when they went naked?
    2) Dan’s admission that he was hoping for a “colorful” tribe seems, again, to be the worst type of missions-adventurer-cultural imperialist mentality. SIL and other missions organizations try to prevent people with this mentality from going to the field “gee, what a big adventure I am on!” The motivation should be love for those people, caring about them as people, not subjects or objects. Did that ever sink in with Dan?
    3) The tribe’s philosophy of everything is as it always was, has been common in history, and is a variation of the theory of a mechanistic eternal universe. I know plenty of students at Pitt who have the same attitude: “let me just get what I can now and not think larger thoughts about what is or what might be.” Does that make it right? I have struggled with how to get some people I know to lift up their eyes and not just think about video games or alcohol in the present. Should I just accept that this is their “culture”?

    Richard J. Cox commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    I am always interested when I hear that someone has lost that faith. I don’t believe that happens. When someone says this has happened, it may mean one or two things, either that they never had it to begin with or that they have strayed. Universities are great places of temptation for this to seem to occur because so many other faith systems compete for our attention, including a belief in our own rationality and our ability to construct infallible sciences. I know that we cannot know everything and that there will always be mysteries in the creation. Unless we remain humble in our own limited capacities, it is easy to build an idol to worship.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    Tom and Dave, I should have known the Pittsburgh connection would mean some of you would know the Everetts. Thanks for bringing a personal perspective to the article.

    The idea of human beings as different from other animals is (to understate things) very important. I was just speaking a medical researcher who noted how rarely it is considered in medical research that human beings are indeed “not just animals.” The article I posted today about W.H. Auden gets to a similar point – Auden (following Kierkegaard, I suppose) distinguishes between “nature” (the world of biological necessity) and “history” (the world of choice and action), but then notes that human beings are the only creature to live in both of those worlds.

    I wish that I knew more about the Piraha. Since reading Charles Mann’s book 1491, about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, I’ve been acutely aware of the influence of Europeans on all of pre-Columbian Americans, even supposedly remote tribes.

    From the article:

    The Piraha were once part of a larger Indian group called the Mura, but had split from the main tribe by the time the Brazilians first encountered the Mura, in 1714. The Mura went on to learn Portuguese and to adopt Brazilian ways, and their language is believed to be extinct. The Pirahã, however, retreated deep into the jungle.

    The article does not take seriously the choices made by the Piraha. Their attitudes towards outsiders is viewed as an accident of their linguistics, rather than as a deliberate strategy. Sometime in the past, I bet someone or some group among the Piraha said, “Look what happened to the Mura. We don’t want that, do we?”

    Dave Snoke commented on February 6, 2009 Reply

    Good points, Michael. A few more thoughts:
    1) When dealing with tribes we are not looking back in time. We are looking at people today, with a history just like anybody else. Just because they say they have no sense of time and have always been this way, does not mean it is so.
    2) Do the Piraha have no moral code, no sense of right and wrong? If they do, how do they argue for it?
    Again, a live-for-today attitude is not much different from what I see in many Pitt undergrads. I wonder if you took some of them and put them on an island, if many words for larger concepts would disappear.

    dopderbeck commented on February 9, 2009 Reply

    I don’t really see from this article what linguistics had to do with his loss of faith. At one point he says: “As I read more and I got into philosophy and met a lot of friends who weren’t Christians, it became difficult for me to sustain the belief structure in the supernatural,” . Nothing specifically about linguistics there.

    Towards the end of the article, criticizing his wife somewhat, he says: “It would be impossible for her to believe that we know the language, because that would mean that the Word of God doesn’t work.” I take it that he means here that if the language is very simple, it will be impossible to translate the Bible, and therefore the people will not be able to hear the gospel. But this doesn’t follow, for at least two reasons: (a) the “Word of God” in scripture refers primarily to Christ and thus one can receive the “Word of God” without having the Bible or even a facility for language (I say this as the father of a child with a neurological disorder that severely impairs language); and (b) there doesn’t seem to be any reason why these people can’t be taught a more detailed language (English? French? Portugese?) in which the scriptures could be read.

    mark c. commented on February 10, 2009 Reply

    I remember one of my linguistics teachers explaining that any language is just as rich as another. In other words, You can say whatever you want in any language.

    I think that someone is about as likely to “lose” or “gain” faith in Christ while studying linguistics as they would be while studying astrophysics or chemistry. Linguistics is a field of study, and you can find Christians as well as non-christians publishing in journals, studying as undergrads, or just enjoying it as laypeople.

    Peter V commented on February 18, 2009 Reply

    My interpretation of Dan’s comment “It would be impossible for her to believe that we know the language, because that would mean that the Word of God doesn’t work.” is different from dopderbeck’s. Perhaps her (Dan’s wife’s) assumption is that if the Bible is translated correctly, the lives of the Piraha must soon be transformed by the Gospel. Since they have not responded as she hoped, therefore the translation must be deficient, indicating that the translators don’t really know the language well enough. Perhaps Dan instead chose to believe that the Gospel lacks power.

    Dave Snoke commented on February 22, 2009 Reply

    The belief that any idea can be expressed in any language comes about because of the ability to express complex ideas using compound phrases. I was impressed when I learn Dutch, several years ago, how they have so few words (about 2000) yet express all kinds of concepts by making compounds. That is essentially what is meant by the term recursion used in the article– you can build up phrases of unlimited complexity by simply compounding words. Everett is saying that this tribe can’t. That is why the claim of lack of recursion is so controversial. And he is saying that culturally they have no desire to learn other languages, though intellectually they could.

    I do see an almost mystical belief implied that it the Piraha get the Bible, they must be converted. I wonder if that belief is widespread in Wycliffe. I don’t see any promises from Scripture for that, though we certainly see a correlation, in our experience.

    Sergey commented on May 14, 2009 Reply

    I have heard of Dan Everett by linguists. he seems really bright.

    I would like to know why the people in the amazon are not complex people.

    I would be shocked that someone from an academia setting would assert such an assumption.

    People in the amazon and in Africa in general have a very compex culture which deals with psychology.
    Psychologists would definitely disagree with Everett’s assumptions.

    I would like to hear why he would hypothesize that idea. Has he tested that hypothisis?

    Chainsaw commented on May 18, 2009 Reply

    Everyone seems to be spouting off without having read the article. It’s only a few pages, and you sound like utter idiots without it.

    In inverse order:
    He’s talking about one particular small group – it’s the ways in which they’re different that make them noteworthy – it has nothing to do with “people in the Amazon”

    The biblical thing comes from the same place fundamentalists get all their “biblical” things. It’s biblical to THEM. And they were both missionaries, there to convert the Piraha, and their culture/lanaguage made conversion impossible/meaningless. Hence the spiritual trouble.

    You have to read about them reading Biblical stories to the Piraha, and them going, basically “So? Do you know this Jesus man?” and laughing in contempt when they find that Jesus died 2000 years ago, to really get that part.

    Yer linguistics teacher was wrong. That’s the whole factual basis of the controversy. WHY they were wrong is still being debated.

    At the time, they “couldn’t” be taught another language because they thought they were all stupid, “laughably inferior”, in Everett’s phrase, to their language, and they refused to learn one. For chrissakes, they’ve been refusing to learn other languages since 1700!!! Likewise many other parts of Christian philosophy – I think it was watching THIS that made him question it himself.

    And so on…

    kategladstone commented on August 16, 2017 Reply

    Re: “there is not a shred of conflict between the study of language and Christian faith” — What about the faith of those Christians who literally believe in the Bible account of the Tower of Babel, which asserts that human languages did not begin to diverge and multiply until some time after city-building had happened?

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