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

by Daniel L. Everett

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6452927,791 (3.76)30
A linguist offers a thought-provoking account of his experiences and discoveries while living with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians living in central Brazil and a people possessing a language that defies accepted linguistic theories and reflects a culture that has no counting system, concept of war, or personal property, and lives entirely in the present.… (more)
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A fascinating story about a remote tribe in the Amazonian jungle in Brazil.

A linguist and a missionary, Everett went to stay with the Pidahas with his family in 1977. It was to be the first of many trips that made up his life's work and that changed his life significantly. Everett's mission was to translate the bible into the Pidaha language. However, the language had never been written down so that too was part of the job. His first job was to learn it by listening and, as he gained skills, asking questions of certain members of the tribe who were willing to help.

He soon learned that the Pidahas are very different from many other "primitive" people who have been studied over the years. They have no myths, for example, and no history to speak of. They do not consider or find important anything that happened to anyone who is no longer alive. Only the present matters. They do not prepare for "hard times" but instead live for today, proud of their ability to survive tough times. In that sense they do prepare: the title refers to their ability to live on little sleep so that they are always aware and able to respond to dangers.

They are also a happy people. Many who have visited them found them to the the "happiest people" they had ever seen.

What this all adds up to is the strong belief among this group that they have it all. They feel superior to others and have no need of material things of knowledge that others have. While they are willing to adopt new tools for things they already do they are not interested in "advancing" in the common sense of the word.

Yet they are not immune to disasters and tragedy. They are knocked down by diseases and can die from what is easily cured by means they do not have. Instead of wanting these things, though, they readily accept death as part of life, and have no strange rituals for burying the deceased.

It may sound like I am saying too much here, but I don't think so. Reading the book gave me a gradual sense of the people that you cannot get from a synopsis. It also introduced me to linguistic techniques and schools of thought that I knew nothing about. The result of Everett's study over many years is that he now takes the position that language is borne of culture, not innate at birth. Following how he comes to this conclusion and what it means is the heart of this amazing story. But there is more than linguistics, as you might expect. There are human connections and significant changes of belief here as well. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
I would have appreciated this book more if I were a linguist, as there are chapters that get pretty technical. But there is enough that is anthropological in nature to keep me happy. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
Fantastic book. So many threads. Yes it is a book about anthropology and linguistics. But along the way it has much to say about life. Very thoughtful book. ( )
  adrianburke | Feb 11, 2017 |
The subtitle pretty much sums this up: Life and language in the Amazonian Jungle. Everett chronicles his experiences over three decades living among and studying the Piraha, an indigenous tribe. He first went to their villages in 1977, as a Christian missionary and accompanied by his wife and three young children. His mission was to learn their language and translate the New Testament into their native tongue so as to bring Jesus to them. What he found was his life’s work.

Parts of this book are very enjoyable for even a lay person (and armchair traveler). There is plenty of danger in the Amazonian jungle – anacondas with a body thicker than a grown man’s, jaguars, caimans, piranhas, not to mention distrustful natives, malaria, typhoid fever and tarantulas the size of dinner plates. Everett and his family encountered all these and more. Stories of hunts, of a frantic trip upriver to take his critically ill wife and child to a hospital, or of altercations with unscrupulous merchants trying to buy natural resources with cheap liquor were told with flare and I found them fascinating and illuminating. But Everett is a linguistics professor/researcher, and there were chapters devoted to detailed study of the structure of language and the way it shapes (or is shaped by) a culture. I tended to lose interest in those sections of the book that read like a research paper, and sometimes got to the end of the page only to realize I’d understood what I read about as well as I might understand the Piraha language.
( )
1 vote BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
American Daniel Everett spent many years, off and on, living among the Pirahã people of the Amazon jungle. Initially he came as a missionary, with the goal of learning their language and culture in order to translate the Bible for them, but became deeply interested in that language and culture for their own sake, and eventually came to regard much about their attitude towards life and belief as superior to his own, ultimately de-converting himself rather than converting the Pirahã.

In this book, he describes his own experiences living with and learning about the Pirahã and adjusting to life on the Amazon. He also describes, in depth and with considerable analysis, some of the unique and interesting features of Pirahã society and language. The language, in particular, potentially challenges a lot of conventional wisdom about how human languages work, and, Everett believes, suggests a much more complex interplay between language and culture than linguists usually allow for.

The linguistic discussion sometimes gets very technical, and I am in no way expert enough to evaluate whether Everett's take on things is completely right or not, but it is thought-provoking, and there's no question that the language itself is fascinating. As are Everett's observations of the Pirahã culture, although it seemed pretty clear to me that he must be overgeneralizing a bit in places. For instance, he states quite emphatically that the Pirahã are extremely peaceful and non-aggressive among themselves (if not necessarily always with foreigners), but then mentions in passing a couple of details that perhaps call that into question. Although that's probably understandable, really; I don't think there's a society on Earth that's entirely consistent and free of contradiction.

In any case, if you can handle the sometimes hard-to-follow linguistic discussions, it's well worth reading, if only for the example it provides of just how diverse human languages and societies can be, and for its look at thought and speech patterns that can be very different from the ones most of us take for granted. ( )
1 vote bragan | Jul 8, 2015 |
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Mit 26 Jahren zieht der Missionar Daniel Everett in den brasilianischen Urwald, um den Stamm der Pirahã zu bekehren. Sieben Jahren später verlässt er die Indianer – seinen Glauben hat er verloren.
 
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A linguist offers a thought-provoking account of his experiences and discoveries while living with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians living in central Brazil and a people possessing a language that defies accepted linguistic theories and reflects a culture that has no counting system, concept of war, or personal property, and lives entirely in the present.

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