Daniel Everett had lived in the Amazon jungle for years with the Pirahãs (pronounced pee-da-HANS) and had grown fluent in their language, when his
entire understanding of their culture was overturned by a salad. He had hungered
for some fresh lettuce after a steady diet of fish and wild game, and had asked
the missionary plane to bring him a salad the next time they flew in to drop him
some supplies. As he sat enjoying his greens, a Pirahã man walked by and peered
at his bowl. "Pirahãs don't eat leaves," he said. "This is why you don't speak
our language well. We Pirahãs speak our language well and we don't eat leaves."
Everett was floored by this summary judgment. He'd demonstrated his mastery of their language again and again. And what did his culinary taste have to do with his linguistic skill? When he finally understood what the man was saying, the insight was as modest as his salad, but has sparked an international scholarly firestorm. The answer, quite simply, is that "to speak their language is to live their culture." Everett could make himself well understood in Pirahã but the fact that he continued to wear Western clothes and use technology in his linguistic research meant that he'd never truly understand the world that the Pirahã language expresses. The Pirahã language is more than the sum of its rather spartan grammatical parts.
That this assertion has undermined over forty years of linguistic research (see sidebar) is only part of what makes this book so enthralling. I never thought I'd think so highly of a linguistics field memoir, but this book captured my mind and hasn't yet let go. Don't Sleep, There are Snakes is excellent brain food: it has a remarkable argument wrapped in a deeply satisfying story. It was nourishing to grapple with the strangeness of the Pirahã culture.
Everett's central discovery is that the Pirahãs culture constrains their grammar. They are limited in what they can say by the values of their tribe. One of the foundational principles of the Pirahãs is that truth consists only in what living tribe members have experienced. They lack creation myths, history, and folklore because they do not accept as true or worthwhile the handed-down testimony of previous generations. But this insistence on the immediacy of experience is so thoroughgoing that it seeps down into the very structure of the language. They have no numbersindeed, no quantifiers such as "all" or "each"because these are abstract principles not subject to direct, pragmatic knowledge. They do not have a future tense because it has not yet happened to them.
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:
"I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.' That was and is the Pirahãs' perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against."
Everett's prose is serviceable, but his stories are flat-out fantastic, like
the time he came across a three-year-old boy wearing a dress and smoking a fat
cigarette that his father had rolled for him, or the time he caught out a man
who was merely impersonating a spirit in a shamanistic manifestation of the
spirit world. If his account contains a flaw, though, it is that he never
portrays any of the Pirahãs as individuals. Perhaps this is because he cannot.
Perhaps the Pirahãs simply do not express themselves as individuals with
distinct personalities, because they are so deeply embedded in their community.
But if so, then I would have liked a more direct discussion of this, because it
represents yet another almost uncanny difference from the Western world (and it
also contrasts with the portraits of individual Pirahãs taken by Martin Schoeller
which are included in the book).
Similarly, Everett recuses himself from his own story, but this does not register as a flaw. He is there on every page, narrating his travels in the first person and portraying himself in befuddled relationship to the Pirahãs, but this is a travelogue, not an autobiography, and he leaves us wanting more about some rather weighty moments in his personal life, such as exactly how he lost his faith as a failed missionary and how that lead to the breakup of his marriage. But he has rightly chosen to focus his story on the Pirahã language, which is now spoken by only about 300 people. If a language dies, Everett writes, "humanity loses an example of how to live."
This review was originally published in January 2009, and has been updated for the November 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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