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Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

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The Pirahã lack one specific technical language feature: recursion (the ability to embed clauses with new information in a sentence, such as I'm doing here). They always had everything they needed, and life was more or less grand, hence the smiles and laughter. The people lived in a world that was spiritually alive, and they often saw and spoke with spirits that Everett was unable to perceive. The Pirahã's primitive insisten

Most significantly, Pirahã sentences only ever contain one verb and Everett argues the language does not allow for linguistic recursion (the use of sentences within sentences). This was something that had been hypothesized by linguist Noam Chomsky, and when Everett publicized this, the finding rocked the world of philology. Everett found himself more and more persuaded that “the act of believing in something unseen” was ridiculous.But, I think Everett is omitting a lot of material that does not fit the neat narrative he is trying to construct to "sell" his linguistic theories to a popular audience and while he claims to have lost his faith fairly early on in the experience, he conveniently "fears" to reveal this until his academic reputation is well enough established that he can dispense with financial support of missionary organizations. 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. 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. Everett is initially shocked at how indifferent the Pirahas seem when his wife and daughter are dangerously ill, shouting after him to bring supplies when he sets off on a nightmare trip to find medical help. They can refer to "some" or "more", but lack a counting system, or even a way to specify a single object.

But frequently they use an expression that, though surprising at first, has come to be one of my favorite ways of saying good night: “Don’t sleep, there are snakes.

If you enjoy reading about language evolution, it's a huge bonus to learn about language isolates such as that spoken by the Pirahas.

I am not criticizing the work he has done or the conclusions he has come to professionally, but just felt this book was too shallow a document to satisfy my thirst for deeper knowledge of the Pirahã culture or language. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one another's views more readily. The women wore the same sleeveless, collarless, midlength dresses they worked and slept in, stained a dark brown from dirt and smoke. He also romanticizes the tribe to fit what he wants to see, painting them in as evidence driven atheists, which just misses the mark to me, based on his description of their spiritualism, and peaceful while glossing over incidents of gang rape and murder.In another blog about this book I found an interesting comment that, “linguistics is populated by a deeply factionalized group of scholars who tend to dismiss their opponents as frauds. Thanks Trevor for the link – all the photos in the book are by the same photographer, who presumably accompanied Everett and his family on some of their stays with the Piraha. He has held appointments in linguistics and/or anthropology at the University of Campinas, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Manchester, and Illinois State University. This is much less dry than it sounds, and is all cunningly tied into an equally fascinating story of Everett’s life with the Piraha and his loss of faith. Therefore, when Everett states this: But violence against anyone, children or adults, is unacceptable to the Pirahas.

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