A great story about “life and language” in the Amazon, as a linguist missionary goes to live among the Piraha
In Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Daniel Everett, a linguist and missionary, tells his story about going to live and study among the Piraha in the Amazon. It’s a great story and lots of fun to read. I’d say it’s especially fun considering the latter part of it is almost like a casual linguistics textbook but still very fascinating.
The book is part biography, part linguistics research, but also jumps into philosophy and trying to reconcile conflicting ideas on cultural values.
Everett starts off as an avid missionary, determined to go to live with the Piraha in the Amazon jungle and learn their language and translate the bible and try to convert them (as missionaries do). It was an especially tough task as no one had really been able to learn their language so far. Though he faces a bunch of hurdles, he is eventually able to learn the language and live among the people. However, he hits a wall when trying to convince them to convert, and he goes into the irreconcilable differences between cultures. Eventually he leaves his religion as well, and his life with the Piraha seems to have a lot to do with it.
But I don’t really feel like the book is about how living with the Piraha caused him to abandon his religion. That is a big part of the end, and certainly a consequence of much of the work. But the bulk of the text is devoted to really trying to understand their culture, which he does through the “immediacy of experience” principle.
The main idea is that the Piraha only talk about something that they have experienced first hand, or that someone else they know experienced first hand. They don’t write things down, and they don’t have a “creation myth” like many other cultures. They also have been stalwart in rejecting these new ideas. Much of the book chronicles how the Piraha are pretty happy with how things are going for them.
They have very different, and definitely tougher lives than living in the US. They live to a much younger age, have a real danger posed from jungle animals, and die of diseases that have routine cures in the US. However, despite all this, Everett ultimately concludes that they are “better fit” for their environment than many people living in more industrialized countries.
It is certainly easy to list of the things they don’t have: they don’t have advanced tools, they don’t have many material possessions, they don’t have the internet, they don’t have big houses, and the list goes on. However, I was very interested in what they do have — or things they don’t have that seems to be a positive.
Many of the outsiders (there haven’t been that many, though…) who have visited the Piraha have concluded that they are the happiest people on Earth. They don’t have depression. They don’t seem to have a lot of things that other people might think are required for a society or language.
When Everett translates many of the lines from Piraha to English, they are terse and simple. But they are also shed light into the very different ways there are of viewing the world.
Certainly an easy view to take of the Pirahas based on their language and culture is that it is more primitive: most of them couldn’t really learn to count, and they don’t have ways to talk about abstract ideas. However, Everett makes a convincing argument that what may be more important is the way that your skills, language, and culture are appropriate for your particular environment.
For example, he tells a story of taking a few Piraha to a Brazilian city, and they are quite confused. They don’t know how to cross the street and are pretty freaked out by cars. They are walking in a single-file line even when it is not necessary, because that is how you would walk in the jungle. They ask immediately, “which way is the river?” because they normally use the river to tell directionality rather than the relative left/right. From this short story it seems the Piraha cannot really handle city life.
But much of Everett’s story shows the converse is also true. Everett, an American linguistics and anthropology researcher is not very fit to live in the jungle. He actions often cause mocking from other Piraha, whether it is at the poor way that he hunts or carries objects or speaks their language or identifies an animal threat. He tells story of his stupidity to identify a massive anaconda, a caiman, and to identify malaria when he thought it was something else. He had many near-death experiences for himself and his family since he was not quite primed for jungle living.
“Why are you eating leaves?” he asked. “Don’t you have any meat?”
My Piraha friend looked at me, then at the leaves, then back at me. “Pirahas don’t eat leaves,” he informed me. “This is why you don’t speak our language well. We Pirahas speak our language well and we don’t eat leaves.” (209)
I think this is a key and quite fun quote in the book. A theme that runs throughout the book is the idea of the inexplicable ties between language and culture, and that you can’t understand one without the other. Initially, it seems to the reader and to Everett himself that him wanting to eat a salad is completely separate from the fact that he doesn’t quite get the language yet. But as he goes on to discover, speaking the language is living the language. Languages have a vocabulary that goes with their culture, and as an American he doesn’t really “grok” some of the big ideas. As an example, a Piraha wouldn’t have a word for internet or television. These just aren’t things they have. But that means they would miss out on American English if they had no concept of the internet or television. They could parse the sentences but they wouldn’t get the references without them. Similarly, Dan can’t get the references — he’s not part of the in-crowd — if his behavior is so different than the Piraha. And that is why the salad he is eating is symbolic of his poor ability at the language. To speak the language well he must understand the culture and context for the Piraha, and there is no reason they would eat a salad.
In the book Everett also explains that the Piraha speak on several different language channels, which is pretty different than English. There is the normal speech, the hum speech, the whistle speech, the yell speech, and the musical speech. The channels all serve different purposes. That seems pretty unique.
He also spends quite a lot of time near the end talking about the lack of recursion in the Piraha language. Recursion is when something is self-referential. In many languages, including English, it is the idea that you can have sentences within sentences or phrases within phrases to build up arbitrarily large sentences. Piraha doesn’t have this. Chomsky seems to posit that the inclusion of recursion is a must-have for a language and something that separates human languages from other forms of communication. Piraha has recursive ideas that flow through stories, but not through sentences. Most of transcribed stories read in a very terse and repetitive way when translated. I found them pretty hard to understand.
The title of the book is Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, and this references some popular and useful advice dispensed to Everett while living in the Piraha. “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” means a few things: It means it first in the literal way, that you should be careful of sleeping too soundly because there are dangerous animals like snakes. It also seems to be used in the metaphorical way to mean something closer to “good night.” Seems like a fun way to say good night.
Overall, I’d recommend the book. My main takeaways were about several core ideas: the immediacy of experience principle, how the culture and language are connected, and that there’s not necessarily a “right” way of doing things, just one we are more used to.
I think if you put the pieces together about the immediacy of experience principle, the fact that they don’t have words for abstraction or numbers or ways to write and talk about things that happened in the past, you get a culture very focused on living in the present. This seems to be deeply connected to the happiness of the Piraha people and seems to be a good lesson to takeaway. It is true that they don’t have most of the luxuries of 21st century American life, but they do have other things. They seem to very very friendly, very peaceful, very happy, they dance, smile and laugh a lot, and like the way they do things. You know, there are a lot of people in the US and elsewhere who want those things too.