Dont Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

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Was it an autobiography, linguistic anthropology, critique of Chomsky's theories, or an anti-missionary apologetic? The lack of a clear structure and aim to t I gave this book a relatively poor rating, not because I am a Christian minister and this book concludes SPOILER ALERT with the unsurprising revelation that through his work with the Piraha he had abandoned his Christian faith, but because it was a literary dog's dinner.

The lack of a clear structure and aim to the book certainly didn't endear the author to me, and, while I come from a "faith-perspective" myself, I found his approach to the Piraha tribe he was working with, and his own inability to reflect on his own thinking and behaviour, deeply frustrating long before he revealed his loss of faith.


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There was a curious contradiction between his latter description of the Piraha as not needing what he had originally gone to share with them ie. Everett's malaria-stricken wife, a member of the tribe giving birth alone on the riverbank, or a woman effectively gang-raped by the males of the tribe.

This is, by no means, a tribe of bucolic innocents. Especially when his actions didn't match his profession - early on in the book, there was he, who professed belief in life after death, frantically trying to save his ill family and making some dreadful decisions in seeking to do so while the Piraha, who believed in death as a part of life with nothing afterwards, simply watching on dispassionately. What was particularly distasteful for me as a Christian, was the idea inculcated in Everett and others at college, that you have to get people lost before they can understand their need to be saved Whilst I understand the sentiment, frankly, I would rather that others sent out with that as their missionary mindset, should rethink not only what, but why they are doing what they are doing.

Obviously I would prefer they didn't come to the same conclusion as Dr. But we need people, in the Amazon and in the post-Christian west, to free the Bible and Gospel from its cultural and linguistic shackles View all 6 comments. May 12, Jay Green rated it it was amazing.

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Not mind-blowing I've been around too long to have my mind blown , but undoubtedly mind-expanding. A fascinating account of one evangelical Christian's conversion to agnosticism as a result of years spent studying a remote Amazonian tribe's language and culture. Some very amusing anecdotes combined with some illuminating observations about the role of culture in shaping language, contrary to the prevailing paradigm of linguistics.

Well worth a read. View 2 comments. Another one of the best books I've read all year. At first I was enjoying the book as a fairly typical, though well-written, anthropology slash adventure story, concerning an idealistic young missionary who goes off into the Amazon to convert an almost untouched tribe of hunter-gatherers. Everett gives a wonderful sense of life among the tribe, and of those great little moments which show exactly how similar and how different we all are: from the time the men killed the anaconda for the sole purp Another one of the best books I've read all year.

Everett gives a wonderful sense of life among the tribe, and of those great little moments which show exactly how similar and how different we all are: from the time the men killed the anaconda for the sole purpose of leaving it in the river where the women bathed and scaring them, to the time the tribe kills a baby Everett's family was trying to save because its mother had died and it "wanted to die" too.

It's a life both uncannily familiar and incomprehensibly different from anything we've experienced. But Everett soon learns that there is something very distinct about this tribe, even next to the kaleidoscopic variety of other Amazonian tribes. He learns that the tribe has no clear plurals in their language or even any words for numbers not even the one, two, three. When the tribe eagerly asks him to teach them to count because they are tired of getting screwed by the caboclo river traders, they attempt vainly for 8 months and then claim such a feat is impossible and give up.

This is where the real story begins.

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

Everett came to the tribe as a disciple both of Christ and Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar, but gradually he realized that this tribe, the Pirahas, didn't have numerous attributes that Chomsky said should be in every grammar, such as conjunctions and recursions. When discussing how this tribe may upend our entire theory of language, it seems like every paragraph he writes sets off new fireworks. He talks about how the Piraha's concern for the immediacy of experience prevents them from generalizing about even such simple things as color, number, or time. But, he knows, if such cultural concerns can influence grammar and language then the whole linguistic system of a-cultural grammar elaborated by people like Pinker in the Language Instinct and McWhorter in The Tower of Babel has to be overthrown.

A language may tell us much more about a culture than we ever admitted possible. For instance, another language researcher found that tribes with fatalistic heros in their myths tended to use passive voice, while those with more active heros used active voice.

Voice wasn't just a way for organizing information in a sentence, a la Chomsky, it was an everyday expression of belief. This is both the more common sense and perhaps more exciting view. There's so much more we can learn from languages that we ever thought possible before. Everett takes the implications of this beyond simple linguistics to debates over Cartesian rationalism, William James' pragmatism, and Christianity he becomes an agnostic by the end of his stay.

It's a book that masterfully shows how abstract debates about seemingly esoteric subjects have real consequences for our entire conception of ourselves as human beings. Aug 16, Shomeret rated it liked it Shelves: worldcat-reviews , my-reviews , anthropology. Everett's limitations with regard to religion made him unable to understand that the Piraha really did have a religion.

They actually spoke to him about their interactions with spirits. The Piraha accept only direct experience as valid. 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.

Direct interaction with the divine is found in all religious traditions. The Piraha appro Everett's limitations with regard to religion made him unable to understand that the Piraha really did have a religion. The Piraha approach to religion is akin to that of visionaries, spirit mediums and shamans. This book is badly in need of a cross-cultural approach. I was interested in the varying meanings for the term "caboclo".

I am familiar with the "caboclos" as a type of spirit in the context of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian tradition. Learning about the use of "caboclo" outside of religion was valuable to me. Jul 07, Jeremy Keeshin rated it really liked it Shelves: book-club , nonfiction , linguistics.

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes - TIME

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.

That is a big part of the end, and certainly a consequence of much of the work. 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 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.

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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. 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. 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 are walking in a single-file line even when it is not necessary, because that is how you would walk in the jungle. From this short story it seems the Piraha cannot really handle city life. Everett, an American linguistics and anthropology researcher is not very fit to live in the jungle.

www.hsprotect.nl/wp-includes/nuys/cedi-no-dia-do.php 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. But as he goes on to discover, speaking the language is living the language. But that means they would miss out on American English if they had no concept of the internet or television. 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.


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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.


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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.

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. This seems to be deeply connected to the happiness of the Piraha people and seems to be a good lesson to takeaway.