Don't Sleep, there are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Daniel L. Everett
Pantheon, 2008 (2008)
Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle
hen I was younger I read a lot of science fiction, and sometimes I'd wonder what it would be like to meet a true alien from another world. How would we learn to communicate? Would the alien's language be so strange that it would be impossible for a human to learn to speak it? Reading
Don't Sleep, there are Snakes
answered my questions. Daniel L. Everett went into the Amazonian jungle to stay with the Pirahã people when he was in his twenties. He took his wife and young children with him, none of them knowing a word of the Pirahã language. Indeed, no one knew the Pirahã language, except the people themselves. Dan was a missionary with training in linguistics, and he hoped to learn the language well enough to translate the Bible into Pirahã, after which he wanted to convert these indigenous people to Christianity.
he first part of the book is truly fascinating, as we learn of Dan and his family's first days and weeks with the tribe. He found people in the tribe who were willing to help him learn their language, and little by little, practicing what he thought he had learned, and being laughed at many times by the good-natured Pirahã, he began to be able to communicate with them better than anyone ever had before. Not being a linguist, I was never able to pronounce the names or words of the Pirahã, but I could recognize names after a while, and when they were shortened, perhaps much as Daniel is shortened to Dan, keeping track of people became easier.
an's family consisted of his wife Keren, their two daughters and one son (ages 7, 4, and 1), and a puppy. There was a house of sorts in the village for them to occupy that had been used by other missionaries before them, but there was very little privacy. The children must have picked up enough Pirahã to be able to communicate with other children since they had no difficulty making friends and playing with the Pirahã children. There were new dangers living in the jungle that the family had not faced in their home in California, but Keren had grown up in a missionary family in the Amazon, so she was well-prepared to teach her children how to be safe.
he village, people, houses, and jungle are faithfully described by Dan as his story unfolds. As time passes, and his language skills improve, we learn more about the Pirahã people and language, and the second part of the book moves into a more esoteric account of what this language, before unknown to the Western world, can teach us about the origins of language and how language relates to culture.
pparently this Pirahã tribe is still living in the Brazilian jungle, protected on their land, which has been made into a preserve. They seem to have no interest in joining modern society and believe that their lives are superior to those of the foreigners who come among them. They do use some of the accoutrements of modern society and delight in the airplane that lands in their village from time to time, but these things aren't important to them. They believe that their ways of doing things are the best ways. For instance, they kill fish with arrows, and have never been interested in the fishing rods that foreigners have given them. Their lives are shorter than ours, but happier in many ways. Dan believes them to be very happy people.
enjoyed the stories of the family and the people of the villages more than the discussion of linguistics, but that was interesting too. I also enjoyed looking at the many pictures of the people and their houses, canoes, and jungle. I'm delighted that this interesting indigenous tribe can continue to live the way they prefer in the Amazon.
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