As we keep on working from home and searching for new sources of inspiration, we at Avantpage have continued our Book Club initiative. Our second pick was Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by linguist and former missionary Daniel Everett. In the book, Everett recounts his astonishing experiences with the Pirahã people, an indigenous Amazonian tribe in Brazil whom he lived with in the 70s.
Everett arrived on the banks of the Maici River in 1977, accompanied by his wife and their three small children. This American, Christian family ended up living among the Pirahãs intermittently for seven years, over a period of three decades. Their mission was funded by the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a Christian nonprofit whose evangelizing method is to translate the Bible into the target community’s language. In order to translate the Bible, Everett had the near-impossible quest to learn Pirahã in order to understand their grammar. During this mission, Everett ended up questioning his own culture, customs, values, and faith, besides discovering some fascinating characteristics of this rare and puzzling language.
Everett grasps the readers’ attention from the start with some nerve-wracking anecdotes that include a life-or-death encounter with an anaconda, malaria that almost killed his wife and daughter, and several risky misunderstandings with the Pirahãs themselves. He also notes that, as a linguist, his initial discoveries baffled him: Pirahã language seemed to have no words for colors, no numbers, quantifiers or counting in any form, no past tenses, no comparatives, no recursion… Besides, Pirahã has one of the smallest sets of speech sounds or phonemes in the world: three vowels and just eight consonants for men (seven for women). (If you’re interested in listening to how this language sounds, check out this intriguing recording).
After much research, Everett comes to question Noam Chomsky’s broadly accepted theories about grammar through bold claims in the field of linguistics, all based in the Pirahã tongue. Apart from their language, the Pirahãs also have ways of thinking, planning, and acting that seem far from Everett’s strict Christian, Western ways. As the author reflects, “language is the product of synergism between values of a society, communication theory, biology, physiology, physics (of the inherent limitations of our brains as well as our phonetics), and human thought”. This view of language is shown in the book through the links that Everett finds between Pirahã language and culture.
This linguist dedicated several years of his life to understanding the Pirahã people, and his accounts make a fascinating read. During our book club meetings, we agreed that perhaps Everett’s writing isn’t the best, but his stories are so captivating that they make the book highly enjoyable. It’s also worth mentioning that this book has produced some controversy, especially among academics, due to its linguistic claims. Still, Everett’s unique anecdotes and theories make his claims worth exploring further. And even if you’re not a linguist, why not travel to the Amazon and find out how the Pirahãs experience the world?