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

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

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

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You know know that situation when you meet somebody and they really annoy you but later on, much to your surprise, you end being very good friends with them? As I continued to read more of the book as well as had the opportunity to listen to an interview done with Daniel Everett these strange concepts began to make more sense to me. The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile. In general it really surprised me that they lacked so much language and linguistic forms that we have.

I would have liked to have read more about this part of the author's life, but I can understand why he didn't want the whole book to be about his loss of faith -- because this book is really about the Pirahas, not him. In the book Everett also explains that the Piraha speak on several different language channels, which is pretty different than English. When a language dies without documentation, we lose a piece of the puzzle of the origin of human language.It is true that they don’t have most of the luxuries of 21st century American life, but they do have other things. And I can look at some of those old men (old like me) who once threatened to kill me and recognize some of the dearest friends I have ever had—men who would now risk their lives for me. Everett went to the Pirahas as a linguist, to study what he believed to be a language isolate (one that is “not demonstrably related to any living language”), and as a missionary. Kevin, though you might not be interested in the whole book, I highly recommend the New Yorker article I linked to above. I think Everett’s point is that because the Piraha people have almost no conversation outside their present experiences, they have no need for abstract descriptors such as ‘red’ or ‘green’ – they will simply refer to the red or green thing that they are talking about.

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's limitations with regard to religion made him unable to understand that the Piraha really did have a religion. I am familiar with the "caboclos" as a type of spirit in the context of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian tradition. I fully agree with Daniel Everett’s belief that culture and language are equally important and one cannot isolate the other.

The Piraha language by itself is one of the simplest languages; without words for colors or numbers, they don’t have a future or past tense, or quantifiers. He also spends quite a lot of time near the end talking about the lack of recursion in the Piraha language. I believe he’s coming to the UK in November, so you could always attend one of his events and ask him yourself then.

At first I questioned this and wondered how accurate Everett’s understanding of the language could be. You can see where the failure to persuade them of the benefits of organised religion is going to come.Much like Norm in Cheers goes on about Cheez-doodles and the Hungry Heifer, his own version of culinary favorites. Whereas “we define success in industrialized cultures at least partially as the ongoing improvement in our technology … the Pirahas show no such improvement, nor a desire for it.



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