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

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Everett’s heroic efforts were vexed by the fact that no other language on Earth bore the slightest resemblance to Pirahã. Second, only by taking a thoroughly male participant observer perspective on the culture and language is he able to maintain his romantic view of the peaceful and harmonious, nearly Edenic nature of their life. But the bulk of the text is devoted to really trying to understand their culture, which he does through the “immediacy of experience” principle. Part of the impetus for this rejection was his observation that no one had been successful in converting the Pirahas for over two centuries, despite a slew of missionaries and despite Everett's own painstaking work in translating the New Testament into Piraha and having many discussions with the Pirahas about Jesus.

With this volume, I felt privileged to have been given a glimpse into Everett's hard-won insights, gleaned over many years, without having had to sleep among the snakes!Kevin, though you might not be interested in the whole book, I highly recommend the New Yorker article I linked to above. The author is so likeable, warm, funny and self-deprecating, that it's like reading a letter from a wise friend. This is why the Bible has no meaning to them, but if Everett had said "I saw Jesus today and this is what he told me," they would have accepted that as legitimate testimony. In 1977 Everett, as a linguist and Christian missionary, travelled to live with the Pirahas (which number about 300 people, spread along 250 miles of the Micai river in Brazil) to translate the Bible into their language.

They were less secure, and had real reasons to worry about tomorrow, because their survival depended on an ever-changing external system that was beyond their control. I understand, however, that these practices are common among many Indians in Brazil, the US and Mexico, but "peaceful" and "harmless" are not good classifiers. Because of this supposed universality, it was often presumed that culture and grammar don't interact. He goes on to explain that although the Pirahas understand the concepts of color and numbers they do not have specific words to codify these experiences.Then, his stepmother committed suicide, he saw the light, accepted Jesus, and his life became better.

They have very simple kinship groups that extend only to children, siblings, parents and grandparents. Often when I first opened my eyes, groggily coming out of a dream, a Pirahã child or sometimes even an adult would be staring at me from between the paxiuba palm slats that served as siding for my large hut. The SIL had great faith that the sacred words of the scriptures alone were all that was needed to illuminate the wicked souls of the heathens and inspire them to convert to the one true faith. Therefore, when Everett states this: But violence against anyone, children or adults, is unacceptable to the Pirahas.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. They always had everything they needed, and life was more or less grand, hence the smiles and laughter.

For example, he characterized them as "peaceful" right before mentioning the rape of a young woman by "most" of the men in the village. The process is clearly something difficult and painful for him, but Everett only refers to his loss of faith in brief asides.One part of the Piraha language that fascinates me the most is how they don’t have no past tense and have no concept of the distance future or ancient past. Everett spent much of 30 years among the Pirahã (1977-2006), arriving long before the happiness study was published. The best chapter of the book is when Everett after 20 or 30 years realizes that the Pirahas will never be converted (did I mention he went there as a missonary? Although, as in all societies there were exceptions to the rule, this is still my impression of the Pirahas after all these years. He told the shocking story of how one of the Piraha babies was sick and they felt that nothing else would help the baby, so they gave the baby alcohol to speed up death.

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