Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Book Review by Melissa Nussbaum

“Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle”
by Daniel L. Everett
Vintage Departures, 2009 first edition
New York

In 1977, Daniel Everett made his first trip to the Amazon, beginning a course of study that would dominate his life for the next two and a half decades. He did not go as an anthropologist or ethnographer, but as a Christian Missionary and a classically trained Chomskyan linguist. Among the Piraha people, he lost his faith in God and Noam Chomsky. He went home an atheist, and proceeded to publish papers that enraged mainstream linguistics and still generate controversy a decade later. Everett's, “Don't Sleep, There are Snakes,” is both autobiography and ethnography, at once a study of a people and a study of the author himself. It tells a unique story: how the Tribe converted the Missionary.

Everett currently serves as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He is the primary authority on the Piraha language of Brazil. According to his CV, he speaks Portuguese, Piraha, and his native English fluently. He describes his Spanish as “fair,” and his French, Italian, and Koine Greek as “reading only.” He has also studied literally dozens of native American languages and identified the Amazonian language isolate OroWin in 1994. His anthropological interests grew out of his linguistic research, and much of his ethnography is derived from his linguistic research in the field. His book's focus is on the Piraha people and their culture and society; he reaches his conclusions based on the relationships he formed while learning their language over the course of more than twenty years of living and working alongside them.

Everett divides up his book in two sections- the first is devoted to cultural questions, and uses personal stories and vignettes to treat diverse subject matters. He attempts to shed light on a tribe that has, historically, been difficult to access, utilizing a language that has been inscrutable to the outside world. His book contains sections on Piraha culture, community, family and kinship, as well an entire chapter devoted to his methods and the mistakes he made in sussing out those details.

Everett references the lessons he learned from the Piraha, “ both scientific and personal,” but acknowledges that, “someone else would no doubt have learned other lessons.” Thus he owns his interpretations, but acknowledges that there could be alternative understandings of his data. By the end of his tale, Everett has a new outlook on the Piraha. His conclusions rock his faith in his religion, as well as his conceptions of how language and culture interact. In the course of learning Piraha, and getting close to the Piraha people themselves, Everett comes to see that much of what he thinks he “knows” is wrong.

The Piraha tribe live in the Amazonian interior, and is comprised of about 300 individuals living in small villages; Everett has lived with and studied each of these groups in the course of his research. In his book, the voices of the tribe members come through clearly, he quotes conversations with many people recorded across the totality of his career. These persons are clearly drawn characters with distinct personalities and viewpoints. They are not mere research subjects, but friends, allies, enemies, and strangers. Occasionally, they are just the neighbors, and he talks of how it was to live and work with them. Through these relationships, he comes to better understand how the Piraha see other native tribes, as well as Brazilian society at large, and Americans like Everett himself.

He comes to understand their social mores and cultural values, and seeks in vain for hallmarks of anthropological study such as myths, folk tales, or religious practices. Repeatedly he looks for expected cultural commonalities, and finds that they are not there. Once he accepts that they aren't, he is forced to ask himself why- and his true work begins. Everett must uncover why it is that the Piraha don't talk about their ancestors, or make up stories to entertain themselves; he must learn why they have resisted the missionaries and resisted “civilized” ideas such as counting, numbers, money, and powerful languages that would give them more agency in the larger economy. His answer is profound and, to some degree, intellectually threatening. It strikes at the heart of modern linguistic theory and our current ideas about how and why language use evolved.

The first half of the book is more autobiography than ethnography. Everett examines his preconceptions through the lens of a two-decade history, and marvels at his youthful naivete'. He tells the story of how the natives saw “spirits”in their environment. He could not, and he tried to reason why that was, without success. He says, “As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one anothers' views more readily. But as I learned from the Piraha, our expectations, our culture, and our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly incommensurable cross-culturally.”

This is the crux of Everett's argument; that culture affects every aspect of our life, even the way we interpret sensory information. He tells the story of a caiman he failed to spot in the jungle. He says, “My inability to see beyond my own nose is a source of constant merriment among the Pirahas...This had been another lesson about cognition and culture, though I didn't quite realize it at that time. We all perceive the world the way our cultures have taught us. If our culture-constrained perceptions hinder us, however, then for the particular environment in which they do so, our cultures obscure our perceptions of the world and put us at a disadvantage.” To Everett, the inability to perceive nature spirits is no different than the inability to make out the red-eyes of a caiman lurking in the tree canopy; his cultural perceptions have him trained to spot cars and pedestrians, because they are the dangers encountered in the urban environment. The Piraha spot prehistoric reptiles and nature spirits that warn them out of the river; these are their native dangers.

The second half of the book focuses on the linguistics of Piraha, but buried within it are cultural examinations of something he terms, “ the experience principal,” as well as ruminations on religion and spirituality. The overarching theme of the book itself is not only what Daniel Everett learned about the Piraha people, but what he learned from them. Everett comes away from his time with the tribe with completely new worldview. He realizes that the Piraha are the happiest people he has ever known, and that they are happy, not in spite of, but because of the social institutions they lack- a hierarchical government, personal property, or a belief in Gods or an afterlife. He takes away new ideas about the origins and arrangement of language, and the relationship between language and culture.

The tribe itself has had sporadic contact with the outside world for centuries, but all attempts to “civilize” the Piraha have failed. While other tribes have gone extinct, or blended into the larger Brazilian culture, the Piraha have rejected the trappings of mainstream Brazilian culture, and have remained almost exclusively monolingual. Their kinship system covers the self, and the generations preceding and following the self. They use absolute directions (North, South, East, and West) given in relation to the river; they have no words for right or left. They lack words for yesterday or tomorrow. They have imported their pronouns from another native language, but this seems to be the limit of their borrowing. Despite regular trade contact with Portuguese speakers, they have not incorporated words from that language into their own.

Their language is incredibly complex and difficult for outsiders to master; it has one of the smallest inventories of phonemes known anywhere in the world. Piraha makes use of tones, and yet it has an enormous repertoire of verb endings. (Everett claims 65000 possible conjugations for each verb.) Piraha has evidential marking, so that every assertion contains within it an expression of how that information was obtained. For example, in Piraha, one does not simply say, “there is a monkey in the woods,” rather, one indicates that they have heard or seen said monkey. Evidential marking is not unknown in the world's languages, but it is uncommon. It also plays into Everett's larger conclusions about the nature of Piraha culture.

The language also has a high degree of allophonic variation. For example, in English, there are two acceptable pronunciations of the word, “the.” We use a long e pronunciation before words beginning with a vowel sound, but a short e before words beginning with a consonant. (“thee apple, thuh table.”) Piraha has hundreds of these allophones, enabling the language to be used in strange ways. It is whistled, hummed, or sang, and these manifestations of the language carry cultural information- children learn the language from their mothers, who interact with them almost exclusively by singing. In order to lessen their impact on game, men whistle their communications while hunting. The language can actually be understood in humming; the words themselves are comprehensible through a closed-mouth, in a fashion unknown elsewhere among the world's languages. The language has no set color words. Items are likened to blood if they are red, to dirty blood if they are black, or transparent if they are white. Perhaps most intriguing (and controversial) are Everett's claims about numerical concepts. He states categorically that the language has no counting words, no numbers, and no quantifiers such as most, many, every, or all. Unusually, the language has no perfect tenses or recursive structures. Recursion has long been accepted as one of, if not the only, universal of human language- all languages are assumed to contain the ability to embed clauses within one another, in the manner of Russian nesting dolls. For example, the sentence “This is the cat that ate the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.” contains the ideas that the cat ate the rat, the rat ate the malt, the malt lay in the house, and Jack built the house. According to Everett, there is no way to say that sentence in Piraha. Rather, the idea would exist as separate sentences- “Jack built a house. The house of Jack contained a malt. A rat ate the malt. A cat ate the rat.” This is one of the most controversial allegations of Everett's research, but it is by no means the only one.

A great deal of Everett's work goes into explaining the concept of experiential liminality, what he calls the experience principal. The Piraha place much importance on how knowledge is obtained; evidential marking indicates how one knows a given fact: it was observed visually, it was heard about from someone else, or it was deduced intellectually. (Lest we wonder if they are perfectly empirical, Everett is quick to point out that the evidential markers are often used to play jokes or to tell lies.) Non-recursive sentence structures may help limit ambiguity in statements.

“Xibippio” is a word that baffled him for years; ultimately he realized the word means something is just now coming into or out of experience- it is becoming seen or known, it is flickering on the edge of awareness, or it has just disappeared from view. Everett sees a uniting thread between evidential marking, experiential liminality, and the experience principal. And he believes this cultural aspect explains why none of the missionaries have been able to convert the tribe.

In simple terms, the Piraha only believe in what they've seen with their own eyes, or have heard in first hand accounts from other eyewitnesses. Everett calls them “the ultimate empiricists.” He recounts how he had to tell them that no one alive right now has ever seen Jesus. When hearing this, the Piraha deduced that there was no reason to believe He existed. They themselves have no stories of what has gone before, no myths, no storytelling fiction or even nonfiction about their forefathers. Once a person has died, and all those who knew him personally have died, then that person's experiences are gone. They have no concept of history. They profess no belief in any sort of a creator or an afterlife. Everett believes the function of this “immediacy of experience” principle is to keep information transfer slow and verifiable. Culturally, they empirical evidence, and Everett believes that their language has become structured in such a way as to enforce that societal value.

Everett chronicles the slow shift in his own perspectives and in his methods of gathering information. He goes from the etic, to the emic- from socially-outside observer to socially involved participant. Early in the book, on page 70 he explains , “I wanted to come up with a theory of Piraha identity based on my own observations. At this time I had only minimal training in Anthropology, so I was largely groping in the dark.”

He apologizes for this inexperience in a painful recounting of errors he made early in his research, and describes how he surrounded himself with Anthropology and Sociology textbooks as he tried to work out methods for gathering information. He quotes extensively from journals kept furtively, scribbled in whenever he had shut himself up in his little house. He could not take notes adequately while traipsing about the jungle, but neither could he rely on nighttime solitude to write-up the days' events. The Piraha do not sleep through the night. Rather than a single stretch of sleep, they take short naps throughout the day or night, evincing a social belief that sleep deprivation makes them “hard.” Hard is good; hard is wary, alert, and alive. Everett is not “hard,” and his weakness for sleep, food, and shelter is a source of amusement to his neighbors, along with his strange predilections for writing in notebooks, praying to God, and recording people's voices to tape. If anything, the Piraha humor him, and watch out for him and his family in the manner of indulgent parents with some not-terribly-bright children.

Everett describes his interactions with the Piraha, and how they change through time. Initially, he is a missionary, they are wary and suspicious; as his research interests grow, a sort of trade develops between them. In the beginning, the Piraha come into and out of his house at all hours, but only engage in his tests if and when the whim hits them. When it does, there is usually exchange involved- the Piraha will humor him for access to trade items, or in exchange for favors. Ultimately, the relationship becomes that of friends and equals, with participants learning from each other on both sides.

Everett tries desperately to improve their lives, but over and over he misunderstands them and makes the wrong assumptions. He tells of how he hired someone to teach them to make dugout canoes, since they steal them. He bought tools, and with their teacher they made a canoe. Later, they came to him wanting another canoe, and he told them to make one. “Piraha do not make canoes,” he was told; the tools were left untouched, abandoned to the elements. Later, he comes to understand that the Piraha make disposable tools; they weave poor baskets that do not last, and dispose of them when the material they were crafted for is gone. They make knives that can be easily and quickly replaced, they steal canoes if they need them, or strip birch trees to make single use birchbark canoes. Even when they know how to do something the outside world does routinely, they are very slow to incorporate it into their own culture. The Piraha are extremely culturally conservative. This is perhaps why, despite centuries of contact with cultures who use counting and money, they do not use these themselves.

Everett does not go into great detail about the methods he used to gather data, except when explaining the ways in which he tested Piraha number sense. He describes how he would use fish in groups of one, two, or more, to elicit words he initially took for “one” or “two” or “many.” Then he describes using two larger fish, and one smaller fish, to elicit the same words but for different groupings. Then he explains how he identified this “one” word with the suffix that was attached to the word for “man” to create the word for “boy.” Thus the word did not mean, “one”, it meant “a small amount.” Subsequently he proved that the other words meant “a larger amount” and “the bulk” (a very large amount, all or almost all.) They lacked numbers in any concrete sense; all number is relative quantity based on context.

One goal of the book is to show how living among the Piraha changed his life and attitudes, but Everett also intends the book as a challenge to a primary tenet of linguistic theory. While his work has been embraced by Neo-Whorfians as evidence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in action, he himself does not go that far. (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea, first promulgated by Edward Sapir, that language affects thought. Essentially, that the type of language a person speaks affects the sorts of ideas, and thoughts, that they can think.) Writ large, it suggests that societies differ based in part of the differences in the structure of their languages. Neo-Whorfians, embracing the work of Sapir and his successor, Benjamin Lee Whorf, suggest that language affects thought in rather smaller ways- such that a language that lacks distinct color words will impact its speakers so that they are slower to distinguish shades of color than speakers of a language with many color terms. Rather than take on Sapir-Whorf, Everett challenges the very notion of the Language Instinct (the idea that all humans are hardwired to speak languages organized along similar, biologically-specified lines), by attributing the oddities of Piraha language to particular cultural values they possess. Primarily, he sees their principle of “immediacy of experience” as a potential reason for their language's evidential markers and and non-recursive structures. That is, Everett doesn't say that language effects thought, but rather that cultural values shape language use. In the same way, he accounts for their lack of number sense by examining the communal nature of their property, and their innate social conservatism. Anything unique to the outside world is, to the Piraha, largely uninteresting. It is not part of their daily experience, and Everett claims that, for the Piraha, experience trumps all else. Experience is reality.

Everett's is clearly a confessional tale, in that it acknowledges his shortcomings and incorporates his personal experience of events. But it also draws upon conventions of the impressionist tale, retelling stories in a dramatic first-person perspective. It reads well and quickly, and the subject matter lingers with the reader, raising as many questions as it answers, encouraging the audience to think more deeply about what it means to be human, and the ways in which humans use language.

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