Here is a book, with quirky title and quirkier cover image, which looks like the most annoying kind of comic travelogue. Hell, the man even has the Bryson-issue red beard. But the subtitle, Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, tells the truth. Here, in fact, is a book about the relationship between language and culture; embedded within it comes the story of a missionary who went to convert the natives and ended up losing his faith. (If you really were hoping for a comic travelogue, sorry to disappoint.)
Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes covers 30 years’ work in under 300 pages. In 1977 Everett, as a linguist and Christian missionary, travelled to live with the Pirahas (which number about 300 people, spread along 250 miles of the Micai river in Brazil) to translate the Bible into their language.
Initially I thought Everett had spent three decades with the Piraha uninterrupted – so that I was, absurdly, disappointed when it turned out he ‘merely’ lived there for periods up to five years at a time. Dilettante. His wife and children accompany him, and bear up well under the pressure, though perhaps not so very well given that it’s a different wife to whom he dedicates the book in 2008. There are hairy moments, such as when his wife and daughter contract malaria. Everett pleads with the captain of the boat they’ve hitched a lift on, to hurry to the port where they can get to hospital.
Fernando replied, “Look, comrade, if your wife is supposed to die, she will die. That’s that. I won’t speed up for you.”
(It doesn’t help that the ship then takes a detour for the entire crew to disembark and play a game of football for two hours.) All this, if Everett had been able to pay attention at the time, would have told him much that was relevant to his work with the Pirahas. “The hardship that I was experiencing, so out of the ordinary for me, was just everyday misfortune to all the passengers on this ship. One did not panic in the face of life, however hard.” The stoicism that he finds suggests that these are a people satisfied with life as it is, without a need for a new world view.
Everett went to the Pirahas as a linguist, to study what he believed to be a language isolate (one that is “not demonstrably related to any living language”), and as a missionary. “Even though I didn’t know the Pirahas, I thought that I could and should change them.” That this plan may not succeed is indicated in the prologue, where he is woken by Pirahas anxious about the presence of an evil spirit on the beach. He can see nothing. It will take him some time to come to terms with the fact that “two cultures … could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahas that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.”
The unifying feature of the Pirahas’ culture is one of acceptance of transience. Their shelters, like all their made artifacts, are temporary and fragile. They do not suspend normal life when a loved one is sick or dying. (And “they have no way of knowing that a Westerner expects to live twice as long as they do.”) They don’t preserve food, even though they know how to (and decline to use other knowledge learned from outside cultures, such as how to build a dugout canoe). They sleep for no more than two hours at a time (the title of the book is a common Piraha greeting). All in all, “planning for the future is less important than enjoying each day as it comes.” You can see where the failure to persuade them of the benefits of organised religion is going to come.
Yet this “immediacy of experience” principle exists within a greater permanence. Everett finds that reports of the Piraha from almost 300 years ago corroborate his own experiences identically. Whereas “we define success in industrialized cultures at least partially as the ongoing improvement in our technology … the Pirahas show no such improvement, nor a desire for it.” Which is not to say that their lives could not be improved in some ways: their way of dealing with sick or dying children and mothers in childbirth seems to our eyes to be somewhere between hardhearted and barbaric.
It is the immediacy of experience principle, central to Piraha culture, which is the downfall of Everett’s missionary work among the people. “You want us to live like Americans,” said one Piraha to him. “But the Pirahas 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?” Everett found himself more and more persuaded that “the act of believing in something unseen” was ridiculous.
All the doctrines and faith I held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture. They were superstition to the Pirahas. And they began to seem more and more like superstition to me.
Their language, argues Everett, is constrained by this principle. They have no abstract words for colours, no numbers (not even ‘one, two, many’ which some other languages exhibit), no oral history or creation myths, and most remarkably, women have fewer consonants at their disposal than men. They “only make statements that are anchored to the moment when they are speaking.”
Everett also finds that there is no recursion in Piraha language, ie embedding of sentences within sentences (such as “the man who is tall came into the room”). On that basis he rejects Noam Chomsky’s theory that grammar is genetic and innate, and that recursion is the unique component of human language. Everett suggests instead that “grammar – the mechanics of language – is much less important than the culture-based meanings and constraints on talking of each specific culture in the world.”
This is much less dry than it sounds, and is all cunningly tied into an equally fascinating story of Everett’s life with the Piraha and his loss of faith. It countered my expectations just as effectively as the cover did. As to the debate on language and grammar, all I can say about this is that it makes a change to see Chomsky attacked for his linguistic views rather than his political ones.