Daniel Everett: Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes

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: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

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.


  1. One drunken night in Chiang Rai, I had an American women quiz me on my politics, only to be delighted when I mentioned Chomsky. “Oh yes, I love Norm Chomsky” she said. Bless.

  2. This is a great review. I would likely have never picked this book up as a result of the cover. And yet, I think I might seek it out now. I find linguistics fascinating, I enjoy reaing about cultures with entirely different ways of viewing the world from our own, and the book simply has to be packed with engaging stories. In other words, it sounds like the book is probably worth reading for any of at least three different reasons.

    By the way, have you ever read Chris Wilson’s Mischief? It is a novel about a child from an undiscovered tribe in Brazil who is adopted by a Brit and grows up in England. This review made me think of it. It is a very good, and original, book.

  3. I remember reading what must have been a portion or a summation of this in The New Yorker a couple of years ago. It fascinated me, and I had no idea it was a book. Here is a link to it, with the same photograph.

  4. The conclusions on the relationship between language and culture are very interesting. I wonder what Chomsky would answer on the assumption that grammar is not innate, though. It seems impossible to me that some languages don’t have words for colours and no numbers, to me they are basic ways of communication between people! Also, I love anthropology.

    1. I also find the relationship between the language and culture to be very interesting. In his book as well as in an interview Daniel Everett claimed that the Pirahas language influenced their culture. To me this concept seems very complex. It is difficult to think of one influencing the other because they seem to coexist.
      While reading this book for class I as well as my classmates were amazed at how different their language was to ours. I was surprised when finding out that the Pirahas had no words for colors or numbers. At first I questioned this and wondered how accurate Everett’s understanding of the language could be. It seemed impossible that this culture would have no way of quantifying anything. I also thought about how difficult it would be to describe things if there were no words for color. As I continued to read more of the book as well as had the opportunity to listen to an interview done with Daniel Everett these strange concepts began to make more sense to me. I now see that it is possible for a language to exist without these seemingly important aspects. Everett states in his book that he as well as a series of psychologists completed experiments to prove that the Pirahas had no words for numbers in their culture. I also found out that after Everett discovered the lack of counting in this culture he as well as members of his family attempted to teach the Pirahas how to count in Portuguese. Although the members of this culture were eager at first they soon found the concept too difficult and abandoned the idea of ever mastering how to count.
      Daniel Everett also uncovered interesting information about the lack of words for colors in this society. In his book he states although the Pirahas perceive color they do not have simple words for it like we are used to. For example they might say, “Blood is dirty” when referring to black or “it is transparent” when referring to white. In his book Everett linked the concept of numbers and colors together. He states “ I believe that color terms share at least one property with numbers. Numbers are generalizations that group entities into sets that share general arithmetical properties, rather than object-particular, immediate properties”(p.119). He goes on to explain that although the Pirahas understand the concepts of color and numbers they do not have specific words to codify these experiences.
      I found Daniel Everett’s research to be very interesting and look forward to hearing more about the research he is continuing to work on. Understanding this culture is not easy but there is clearly a lot that can be learned from this isolated culture group.

    2. After reading Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, and skyping with him in my Linguistics class I feel like I have been given a lot of new and useful information regaurding the field of linguistics. Specifically, I was unaware of the debate between Everett and Chomsky over the idea that all language is recursive, meaning you can add phrases or clauses can be inserted into a sentence. I was also unaware of how heated linguistics debates can get between two linguists with differeing ideas. In another blog about this book I found an interesting comment that, “linguistics is populated by a deeply factionalized group of scholars who tend to dismiss their opponents as frauds.” After seeing and hearing Everett and Chomsky debate between each other I can see how this is true. Unfortunaltly thought, I feel like this dissmisal of ideas could be a main thing holding linguistics back. I know from previous expereince working in education, that collaboration and teamwork can make an expereince much more meaningful and successful and I feel that Everett and Chomsky could really benefit from hearing and learning each other research.
      Additionally, I also thought that it was interesting that the Piraha do not have words for colors or numbers. In general it really surprised me that they lacked so much language and linguistic forms that we have. The Piraha don’t have words for numbers or colors because in their culture there is no use for them. Instead they use phrases like, “it was like blood”, to mean red and and so on. I think that the Piraha’s lack of color or number words is a direct relation to their culture and that this shows how much culture does effect language. I am eager to read Everett’s second book, Language as a Cultural Tool. I think I will get a lot more information on how culture effects language.

  5. It seems impossible to me that some languages don’t have words for colours and no numbers, to me they are basic ways of communication between people!

    Well quite, Stefania! I think Everett’s point is that because the Piraha people have almost no conversation outside their present experiences, they have no need for abstract descriptors such as ‘red’ or ‘green’ – they will simply refer to the red or green thing that they are talking about. He also says that they can count on their fingers, for example, but that they do not have words for the numbers. The whole point of the book, I suppose, is to highlight how two cultures can literally see the world differently – so that it is indeed impossible for us to understand how they can’t have numbers and so on.

    Thanks Trevor for the link – all the photos in the book are by the same photographer, who presumably accompanied Everett and his family on some of their stays with the Piraha.

    Kerry, I haven’t heard of Mischief but will look it out. And I think you’re right about this book – there are at least three ‘ways in’ for people with different interests to be attracted to it. (EDIT: I’ve just looked up Wilson’s book on Amazon and I am convinced that someone else mentioned it to me months or years ago. It just rings a bell. I’ll order a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.)

  6. We were in the Rocky Mountains this weekend and dropped in on a presentation about grizzly bears. The key point of which was that during the six months of summer a grizzly has to take in 40,000 calories a day to build up the energy reserve that will feed it for six months of hibernation. Which to me means that the bear has to have a longer survival time horizon than the Piraha do. Not to mention the issue of how many words the Inuit actually do have for snow — contrasted with a culture that doesn’t have an abstract word for “green”.

    Thanks John for a fascinating post. I don’t think I will read the book but your excellent summary does provide food for thought. Much like Norm in Cheers goes on about Cheez-doodles and the Hungry Heifer, his own version of culinary favorites.

  7. Kevin, though you might not be interested in the whole book, I highly recommend the New Yorker article I linked to above. It’ll take only an hour or less of your time, and I found it very worthwhile. Of course, John’s post is much shorter and just as intriguing!

  8. Thanks for the review – although I’ve been reading your site for a little while, this is the first book that has really caught my eye. I’m adding it to my to-read list now (which means I’ll probably get around to reading it in the next five years or so).

  9. Interesting stuff — but I wonder if the Pirahas are really doing without superstition, when they’re worried about the presence of evil spirits. Maybe it’s just that, for them, there’s no distinction between a superstition and a rationally justified belief, because they’re not in the business of justifying their beliefs at all.

  10. 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.

    Ha, I see you do not know the riveting academic debates of the linguistics community 🙂

    I’ve been wanting to read this myself, actually, ever since first reading about him in the New Yorker, but as I know the linguistic analysis is not being accepted uncontroversially I feel like I’d have to do so much research to be really satisfied. Glad to hear it was a good read, though.

  11. Ah well I did wonder how Everett’s (and Chomsky’s) views were regarded in the linguist community, nicole – and was aware that in the book, the lay reader has only Everett’s word to go on.

    Jonathan, I think the point you raise is addressed in the book, though I didn’t cover it here. Everett gives the example that the Pirahas view dreams as indistinguishable from waking life, because both are things they see and therefore are to be treated in the same way.

    And Margo, I’m delighted your persistence has paid off! 😉

  12. Is there any verification of his claims as to the language? I ask because there was a fairly famous incident where a sole researcher claimed that the language of the Hopi Indians contained no words for time, a conclusion which for a while became relatively common knowledge.

    But it wasn’t true, it’s been heavily challenged since and it seems the Hopi’s concepts are much like everyone else’s after all.

    Similarly, with respect to the Eskimo words for snow thing, it’s been pointed out that English actually has rather a lot of words for snow too, and that certain Eskimo languages use compound word forms which means phrases that in English would use multiple words (heavy snow) in Eskimo get agglomerated into one (heavysnow). Making it an issue of grammar, not vocabulary.

    I’d also query the spirits on the beach thing, they have no words for colour but they do for unseen spirits? That seems unlikely. I note the dream explanation, but when you talk of a dream you necessarily talk of something no longer present, if you do that for dreams why not for yesterday or the hunting ground over the hill?

    It sounds fascinating, but it also sounds a bit suspect, at the risk of sounding cynical do we know his claims about the language are actually true?

  13. No we don’t Max, though 30 years seems a long time to spend on the perpetration of a hoax. He was preceded as missionary by one or two others, one of whom gets namechecked fairly often in the book (I don’t have it to hand so can’t remember his name), and Everett says that this predecessor had done quite a lot of work on the language before him, and there are some Piraha conversations transcribed by the predecessor which are reprinted in the book. However so far as we know, Everett is the only ‘fluent’ speaker of Piraha.

    I believe he’s coming to the UK in November, so you could always attend one of his events and ask him yourself then.

  14. Well, it needn’t be hoax, he could simply be wrong. I don’t think anyone accused Whorf of hoaxing on the Hopi Indian thing, just sloppy thinking and bad translation.

    That said, there are others who defend Whorf and argue that he had real insights and was essentially correct in his theories, even if the Hopi example wasn’t his best. This could be a much better example, which is why it’s potentially quite important.

    Still, fascinating stuff, I’ll keep an eye out for when he hits the UK. It’s a subject that interests me.

  15. I had the privilege in one of my current classes at Michigan State University to not only read “Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes”, but we also had a Skype interview with Daniel Everett himself. This once in a lifetime opportunity furthered my thoughts about the Piraha language. One part of the Piraha language that fascinates me the most is how they don’t have no past tense and have no concept of the distance future or ancient past. They live in the present therefore only talk and think in the present tense. As someone who thinks about my past and future constantly, I found this extremely captivating and envious because I wish I could be that carefree. I didn’t believe it fully, until I heard the stories out of his mouth. He told the shocking story of how one of the Piraha babies was sick and they felt that nothing else would help the baby, so they gave the baby alcohol to speed up death. Everett said in the interview that he was so upset with them and still to this day, doesn’t understand why they thought that was okay when they could have tried more ways to save him. Now, however, he thinks about it in a different more positive manner by saying that language shapes culture and culture shapes language. Though this was a culturally shocking experience, I can at least understand their culture and respect that their “immediacy of experience” does not mean that they are cruel when it comes to death, but rather they think and talk in the present so it only made sense to them not to let the baby suffer any further. The Piraha language by itself is one of the simplest languages; without words for colors or numbers, they don’t have a future or past tense, or quantifiers. However their different culture, stresses/tones, and singing in conversation makes their language one of the hardest to learn. I fully agree with Daniel Everett’s belief that culture and language are equally important and one cannot isolate the other. He even said himself that he wouldn’t have fully learned their language without being immersed in their culture and he wouldn’t have understood their culture fully without learning their language.

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