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Daniel L. Everett: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

An unspoken assumption of human culture is that no matter how disparate two societies appear, a mutual understanding is possible through common needs. All people get hungry or cold or lonely; with that as a starting point, through patience and craft, a connection can be established. This is roughly true, but it's easy to overlook the distance that can remain between groups that don't perceive reality in the same way. Language provides an opportunity to clarify those differences, but the differences make translation difficult. It's hard to find common ground while talking to someone with no clear concept of "blue."

When Daniel Everett first went to visit the Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe infamous for the problems its language presented to foreigners, he had two goals in mind: to come up with a system of recording and understanding the Pirahã dialect, and to use that system to translate the New Testament and start converting the locals. This proved more challenging than he anticipated, ultimately leading him to question his own faith. Everett's book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life And Language In The Amazonian Jungle relates his experiences with a people whose concept of identity and time make them essentially immune to evangelicals. More importantly, their grammar challenges some of the fundamental precepts of linguistic theory.


Snakes is too disjointed to be a memoir; while Everett tells a number of anecdotes about his time with the Pirahã, there's no sense of linear progression, as each story is raised to either introduce a grammatical concept, or make a point about the people he studied. The book is more a thesis on the importance of the Pirahã language, but it's fascinating reading even for the layperson. Everett makes clear, easy-to-follow arguments on the ways in which the Pirahã's "immediacy of experience" defines the way they communicate. In addition, his adventures living among them are gripping; Everett doesn't judge himself or the people he encounters, which gives the more biographical sections an engaging ambiguity, particularly in light of his eventual spiritual conversion. Snakes is a little dry in places, and could've used more biographical information, but it's still satisfying as an adventure that grants respect to discoveries both practical and intellectual.

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