“Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes” Dan Everett

Posted on May 17, 2010

When you study a language, you are studying more than just words and grammar, you are studying the culture and history of the people that speak it. Nowhere is this more clear than in Dan Everett’s study of the Pirahã people, a tribe of no more than 400 persons deep in the Brazilian Amazon. Without going into too much detail, these guys break all the rules. They cannot count for starters. Despite daily lessons for 8 months, not a single adult or child in a village learned anything beyond the difference between one and many. They have no cardinal directions. Despite 200 years of diligent trying, not a single one has been converted to Christianity. They have absolutely no desire to take up a ‘modern’ lifestyle. More interestingly, the concept of suicide is completely foreign, laughable even. Like many Amazonian tribes, there is no such thing as mental illness.

“Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes” chronicles Dan Everett’s 30 year interaction with the tribe. Originally attempting to learn their language so that he could translate the New Testament into their language, his relationship with them became much more profound than that. The book tells the story of him dragging his family to the middle of the jungle, their near death experiences and the subtle joys of Amazonian life.

This book is a pretty decent primer into linguistic analysis. Everett spends many pages carefully explaining how profoundly peculiar the Pirahã language is. Although I am a devout disciple of Noam Chomsky, their language presents some deep problems to his theories. What follows is a gross generalization of modern linguistic analysis, but bear with me. If you don’t feel like being a linguistics nerd for the next 200 words, skip to the last paragraph.

Noam Chompsky’s theories are predicated on the fact that there are an infinite number of ways to put together the participles that make up our language. So let’s take, for example, the sentence “The panther ate the dog”. Great. In English, and in Pirahã, this is perfectly fine. In English, we can further clarify by saying “The panther that has dark spots ate the dog.” Again, fine in English, but this sentence is not allowed in Pirahã. In Pirahã, you can only have 1 phrase. In the former sentence, you have 1 phrase. In the latter, it is two phrases. ‘That has dark spots’ is a phrase within the larger sentence, and this is absolutely not allowed in Pirahã. Well why does this matter? Because all of a sudden, there are not an infinite number of combinations.

I’ll explain. Every verb has a certain number of noun slots. Every verb has a subject (we’re ignoring passive, Pirahã has no passive). Some have an object. Some have a slot where there is a complement (like an indirect object). But eventually you run out of places to stuff words. In English, we get around this, and build complex sentences by adding clarifying phrases. We can literally stack “that …” on top of each other until we feel like stopping. This means, in terms of basic sentence constructions we have an infinite number of “Platonic” sentences. They may not be very interesting sentences, but they are real. In Pirahã, you are limited by the slots that each verb can hold. Reading transcriptions of their stories is extremely disorienting, because they have to break up every sentence. For that problem sentence, they would lay something like, “The panther ate the dog. The panther has dark spots.” Post in the comments if you don’t get it, or if you have any questions.

Don’t Sleep is a marvelous book. One part adventure. One part anthropological survey. One part linguistic analysis. Everett presents us with a people whose life is intensly defined by the here and now. They do not believe what they do not see. This is why converting them is so much of a problem. For you Fracophiles who say that you appreciate the Gauls because they are “just living life” or whatever, I’m calling you out. Read this book and then tell me if you can justify your statement. This goes for anyone out there who thinks you know the meaning of life or feel in any way spiritually comfortable. We could all take a page out of their book.

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3 Responses to ““Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes” Dan Everett”

  1. Mike on February 14th, 2011 4:14 pm

    I am enjoying browsing through your reviews. One question on this one:

    Does Everett make a connection between limited language and lack of mental problems?

    I think I need to read the book because I’ve got forty more questions and follow-ups (Linguistic complexity is devolution?). Nice appetite whetting review…

  2. Heath on February 14th, 2011 4:19 pm

    He doesn’t really get into it in this, although that’s part of the discussion else ware, although there is a much lower instance of mental health issues in hunter-gatherers in general.

    One thing they’ve realized since this, and I think it was covered in a Radio Lab, is how they count. So instead of going 1 2 3 4, they think logarithmically. So if you have 81 beans and you ask them what half of it is, they’ll say 9. That’s a rough generalization, but fundamental.

    Is this Mike my cousin in Fredricksburg? If it is, I can definitely give you my copy. I’m done reading it, and I need the space on my shelf.

  3. Mike on February 16th, 2011 9:22 am

    Sho is. Please – would love to read. Unfortunately I think I will see you soon. Hope that you are doing ok and Laura and I are thinking about you and the rest of the family.

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