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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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7133027,493 (3.74)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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This book describes the time spent among an isolated Amazonian tribe by a missionary and linguist, but it is about much, much more. The author was sent to learn the language of the Piraha, a tribe that now numbers less than a thousand people, so that he could translate the New Testament into that language to help convert the Pirahas. Over many years, he learned the language and came to appreciate the culture; both of which are extraordinary. His description of his family's life with the Piraha, far into the Amazon jungle, is fascinating, as is his description of Piraha culture.

But there is much more to the book than adventure in the Amazon, and discussion of an Amazonian people. In the book, he discusses the ways in which the language came to affect his views about language, to the point where they made him question Noam Chomsky's theory that grammar is innate. His work challenging Chomsky has had wide influence, and his discussion of that work (and of Chomsky's view) is the clearest that I have ever read. Essentially, the author regards language as much more a product of culture (or an interaction with culture) than a matter of genetics -- a revolutionary view.

In addition, the book discusses faith, and the challenges to his faith that the author found in the Amazon. All in all, this book made me think really hard about very big themes, despite the fact that it is a relatively easy read. I can't recommend it too highly. ( )
  annbury | Nov 6, 2022 |
I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

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 |
Showing 1-5 of 30 (next | show all)
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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