Thursday, March 12, 2009

Don't Sleep, there are snakes - a review

I just finished reading a remarkable book by Dan Everett, entitled Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes. The title is an admonition given frequently by the Amazonian Pirahã to visitors, expressing the fact that the Pirahã sleep very little and only for short periods, because it toughens them and keeps them prepared for dangerous wild animals. The author, an evangelical and linguist, spent about a decade living with the Pirahã over the past thirty years. He first went to their home on the Maici tributary of the Amazon river, to learn their language, Pirahã, sufficiently to translate the New Testament. (The Maici river is a tributary of the Madeira River, which in turn is a tributary of the Amazon. The River of Doubt, renamed the Roosevelt River after Teddy Roosevelt navigated it from the source to the Madeira is also a tributary of the two rivers, which lie to the south of the Amazon.

Everett belonged to an evangelical sect that believes that the Bible is the word of God, and that it therefore is sufficient to translate into a native language for the people speaking that language to read it for themselves. Thus, this particular brand of evangelical missionary work expressly forbids proselytizing and has produced a significant body of work on endangered languages. Everett is an academic, now Chair of Languages, Literature, and Cultures at Illinois State University. He has studied in Noam Chomsky’s linguistic department at MIT and extensively at Campinas State University in Brazil, where he got his PhD.

The book is the saga of his encounter with the Pirahã language and culture, and documents the transformative effect that it had on him. In effect, the missionary became converted, and he now embraces the Pirahã culture, has acknowledged his nontheism, lost his marriage and family, and is evidently a happier man for having taken the odyssey. The narrative is at turns exciting adventure, light-hearted comedy.

Because the Pirahã language exhibits quite unusual formalities, the book is also a penetrating intellectual transformation of some significant consequence. The language lacks a number of basic properties which, according to Chomsky are innate and essential to all human languages. Most notable of these is recursionary grammar. The Pirahã use only simple declarative sentences of just a few words, never combining sentences into more complex thoughts, which are always conveyed instead by multiple simple sentences. This makes it sound as if the people and their culture are deceptively simple. The simplicity is amplified by the almost non-existence of words for family relationships, color, or number. Although there are a very large number of verb forms, these make only rudimentary reference to relative time.

The Pirahã cannot interpret two-dimensional photographs, and even have difficulty recognizing photos of people they know. The book is blessed with an outstanding series of brilliant portraits by Martin Schoeller, and which appeared in the New Yorker, along with a fascinating article by John Colapinto, which I read several years ago when it first appeared. The lack of ability to abstract from two to three dimensional representation, together with the dominance of what Everett refers to as the “immediacy of experience” principle (IEP) comprise a fascinating cultural portrait that raises many significant questions about cognition and the interrelationships between language and culture. The Pirahã actively oppose anything for which there is not a first-hand eyewitness account, and yet they appear often to witness “spirits” as a community.

Ample evidence quoted in the book that the Pirahã respond to their world in a far healthier fashion than do most contemporary societies. A team of cognition specialists from MIT concluded that they are significantly happier than other cultures (with the possible exception of the Danes!).

The book is written in a sweet, gentle, and compassionate style, with a wry sense of humor, informed significantly by the Pirahã directness. One anecdote jumped out above all others. Toward the end of the book, Everett is discussing the origins of his “conversion”, where he realizes that the Pirahã values are actually more comfortable for him than his own Christian beliefs. Apparently, he frequently entertained the Pirahã in his home for coffee. On one such occasion, as he poured a cup for his best friend some time after he became integrated into the society, he relates this:

‘As he took the cup from me, Kohoi said, “Ko Xoogiái ti gi xahoaisoogabagai” (Hey Dan, I want to talk to you). He continued “The Pirahã know tha tyou left your family and your own land to come here and live with us. We know that you do this to tell us about Jesus. You want us to live like Americans. But the Pirahã do not want to live like Americans. We like to drink, We like more than one woman. We don’t want Jesus. But we like you. You can stay with us. But we don’t want to hear any more about Jesus, OK?”’