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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle


Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Daniel L. Everett is a linguist who first visited the
Pirahã tribe as a family man and missionary. His experiences
over the next 30 years broke up his family, put him at odds with
the linguistic establishment, turned him into an atheist --- and
have provided us with a fascinating book, which is part Boy Scout
adventure, part reality TV, part crisis of faith, part
anthropological study, and part linguistic treatise.

The Pirahã (pronounced Pee-da-HAN) are a little known tribe
of Amazonian Indians who live on the banks of two rivers in
territory that, before Everett encountered them, had never been
assigned officially to the tribe but that they defended,
occasionally to the death. Largely peaceful, they have intermarried
and retained a very primitive lifestyle that they consider to be in
every way superior to that of outsiders, including Americans, for
thousands of years. They are far less colorful than many Amazonian
groups, with no decorative arts or inventions. They purchase some
pots and axes and make their own bows and arrows. If a plane comes,
boys will make models of the planes but will throw them away days
later. They live in the crudest of rudimentary stick and leaf
shelters and survive by eating manioc, which simply grows nearby
without being cultivated, and by hunting and fishing. They have no
special rituals, and apart from the occasional visit from a spirit
to frighten or inform them, they have no religion.

When Everett took his family and went to live for shorter and
longer periods of time with this strange tribe, he was expected to
learn their language, make a translation of the Bible and then
convert the natives. What he learned was that the language itself
held the key to their culture. And discovering the essence of that
culture, he realized that they would never be converted --- not as
long as they remained as they are --- and he saw no reason to
change them, just as they saw no reason to change themselves.

There is an illustrative story (among many) of Everett being
approached by men in the tribe who wanted him to buy them a big
canoe from a neighboring tribe. With all the right instincts as a
missionary and development agent, he did everything needed to
transfer the skill of canoe construction to them. He invited the
neighbors to come in and demonstrate, and insisted that the
Pirahã men work alongside them. Not long afterwards, the same
men came to him for money to buy another big boat. “I told
them they could make their own now. They said, ‘Pirahãns
don’t make canoes.’”

Everett came to understand that the Pirahãns live entirely
in the moment. They have no creation myths, no history past the
living generations. Their language, which has only a few words,
speaks primarily of immediacies, and is so dependent on tone that
it can be hummed or whistled for clarification. All verbs have up
to 65,000 combinations but only a handful of tenses. Everett is one
of the few outsiders who ever learned to speak it, but he believes
that after 30 years, the Pirahã people still do not regard him
as a speaker any more than we consider a computer to be an English
speaker. The tribe does not theorize or plan. They just exchange
chit-chat. Yet the typical Pirahã is happier, Everett
believes, “than any Christian or other religious person I
have ever known.”

The Pirahãns did not accept Jesus because they had never
met Him. Their simple view deeply affected Everett, who had been
well trained as a missionary to confront and overcome almost any
challenge --- superstition, malaria, filth, alligators. But this
startling way of looking at life as entirely evidential shook his
faith and eventually caused him to confess that he had lost it.
Everett not only shocked his missionary peers and fractured his
marriage; he sent ripples through the linguistic establishment with
his claims about the construction of the Pirahã language,
saying it did not build upon itself and was not recursive, which
challenged the theories of the great Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s
linguistic doctrine postulates a universal grammar,
ever-increasing, ever able to branch out and express ever more
complex concepts. Everett was saying that, perhaps unique in the
world, here in the Amazon was a group of people whose language did
not grow, whose experience did not expand with increased contact
with the outside, and who liked it that way.

As Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois
State University, Everett has proven his points and earned his
laurels. He still visits with the Pirahã.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 21, 2011

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
by Daniel L. Everett

  • Publication Date: November 11, 2008
  • Genres: Linguistics, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 283 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375425020
  • ISBN-13: 9780375425028