Summary and book reviews of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

By Daniel L. Everett

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2008,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2009,
    304 pages.

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Book Summary

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977–with his wife and three young children–intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding: The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live–so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them.

Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

Prologue

"Look! There he is, Xigagaí, the spirit."

"Yes, I can see him. He is threatening us."

"Everybody, come see Xigagaí. Quickly! He is on the beach!"

I roused from my deep sleep, not sure if I was dreaming or hearing this conversation. It was 6:30 on a Saturday morning in August, the dry season of 1980. The sun was shining, but not yet too hot. A breeze was blowing up from the Maici River in front of my modest hut in a clearing on the bank. I opened my eyes and saw the palm thatch above me, its original yellow graying from years of dust and soot. My dwelling was flanked by two smaller Pirahã huts of similar construction, where lived Xahoábisi, Kóhoibiíihíai, and their families.

Mornings among the Pirahãs, so many mornings, I picked up the faint smell of smoke drifting from their cook fires, and the warmth of the Brazilian sun on my face, its rays softened by my mosquito net. Children were usually laughing, chasing one another,...

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Everett's gift as a writer is that he can make his linguistic discoveries as suspenseful as a detective on the scent of a murder. His gift as a linguist is his unsentimental cultural sensitivity. He insists many times that we view the Pirahãs lack of numbers or history not as a negative, as a gap in their culture that renders them less advanced than us, but as a positive choice that they've made in the service of their values. He portrays the Pirahãs as a deeply conservative culture. They have no trouble resisting Westernization because they only adopt devices or practices which do not require them to change their lifestyle. In a wonderfully circular argument, Everett describes them as supremely well suited to life in the jungle, and therefore confident and secure because "they are good at what they do," but also so content they have no need for innovation or cultural advancement. They are a society of "highly productive and conformist members" who also happen to be, by many Westerners' measure, one of the happiest peoples on the planet:   (Reviewed by Amy Reading).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Edward Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dan Everett is the most interesting man I have ever met. This story about his life among the Pirahãs is a fascinating read. His observations and claims about the culture and language of the Pirahãs are astounding. Whether or not all of his hypotheses turn out to be correct, Everett has forced many researchers to reevaluate basic assumptions about the relationship among culture, language and cognition. I strongly recommend the book.

Author Blurb John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley
Dan Everett has written an excellent book. First, it is a very powerful autobiographical account of his stay with the Pirahã in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Second, it is a brilliant piece of ethnographical description of life among the Pirahã. And third, and perhaps most important in the long run, his data and his conclusions about the language of the Pirahã run dead counter to the prevailing orthodoxy in linguistics. If he is right, he will permanently change our conception of human language.

The Guardian - Andrew Anthony

Everett writes simply and persuasively about language, but he lacks the wit and felicitous gift for analogy that enables someone like Pinker to bring structural linguistics to life. He's much more engaging when relating the Pirahã language to the Pirahãs themselves.

The Independent - David Papineau

Related in episodic style, the book is destined to become a classic of popular enthnography. Life in the jungle is harsh and steamy, for missionaries and natives alike, and Everett employs an understated litany of narrow scrapes to help us understand the quirky Pirahã worldview.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Everett...has crafted a fascinating account of his 30 years of linguistics work among the Pirahã Indians.

Publishers Weekly

Starred & Signature Review. In this fascinating and candid account of life with the Pirahã, Everett ...explains his discoveries about the language—findings that have kicked off more than one academic brouhaha.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Rich account of fieldwork among a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil . . . introduce[s] non-specialists to the fascinating ongoing debate about the origin of languages. . . . Everett's experiences and findings fairly explode from these pages and will reverberate in the minds of readers.

Time - Claire Suddath

[W]hen the talking stops and the sentences have all been diagrammed, Everett's book becomes more than just the personal journey of a man deep in the heart of godless, grammatical darkness. There is no horror for Everett or the Pirahã, just friendship, respect, and endless fascination with each other's differences.

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Everett vs. Chomsky
In Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, the elephant in the room—or rather, the elephant in the Amazonian jungle—is the noted American linguist, Noam Chomsky. To put it far too simply, Chomsky and Everett are feuding over which has supremacy in linguistics: genetics or culture, nature or nurture.

Chomsky's theory of universal grammar, which has dominated linguistics for the last forty decades, hypothesizes that the human brain comes pre-equipped with a set of rules for constraining language. The theory arose from a question: how can a child who is acquiring language learn what is ungrammatical, if the only speech she hears is grammatical and correct? Adults do not teach language to children by ...

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