A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977with his wife and three young childrenintending 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 liveso much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God hed 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.
"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,...
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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Everett vs. Chomsky
In Don't Sleep, There are Snakes, the elephant in the roomor rather, the elephant in the Amazonian jungleis 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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