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Daniel Everett


Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
The Pirahãs are a small (currently less than 400) group of Amazonian natives, living beside the Maici River in central Brazil. Daniel Everett is an anthropological linguist who has lived with them for extended periods over the last 30 years. He first went there as a young missionary, intending to learn their difficult language in order to translate the Bible and so win converts. In the event, it was he who became converted: partly as a result of coming to understand their outlook on life he lost his own faith and is now an atheist.

He also became an academic linguist and there is a lot about language here, but always in the context of the Pirahãs' culture, because it his opinion that a language cannot properly be studied apart from the culture of its speakers. He presents a lot of evidence for this.

Because he had no interpreter he had to work out the meaning of words for himself, and this was often difficult. Sometimes his teacher would keep changing the form of a word that he had just used, apparently without altering the meaning. It sometimes took Everett a long time to understand what was going on. For example, the Pirahãs have no words for right and left; such terms are defined topographically, in relation to the position of the river, and not in relation to the side of the speaker's body. Much confusion arose from such cultural differences.

The Pirahãs are unusual in many ways, apart from their language. For example, they have no religion as such and no creation myths. This is because they will only accept as real either the evidence of their own eyes or the report of others about things they have witnessed personally. The Bible reports of Jesus are therefore irrelevant to them, which explains why no Pirahã has been converted to Christianity in almost 300 years.

They do believe in spirits, which may take either animal or human form, but these are something they can see for themselves. Sometimes a Pirahã will give voice temporarily to the utterances of a spirit, a phenomenon that is suggestive of shamanism. Everett denies that it is really shamanism, on the grounds that there are no specialist shamans in their society, but in fact there are parallels to this in other so-called shamanistic groups.

Everett experienced a vivid illustration of the Pirahã attitude to spirits, which convinced him that reality can be astonishingly dependent on cultural background. He starts the book with a description of the villagers all standing on the river bank and pointing across to the opposite side, where they could see a spirit standing and addressing them, warning them not to go into the jungle that day. Yet neither Everett nor his young daughter could see anything there at all.

The Pirahãs are a tough people. They sleep little (as reflected in the title of the book) and also eat little, believing that self-indulgence makes you soft. They also believe in self-reliance. Sometimes this amounts to what sounds like callousness or indifference. When Everett's wife and daughter became seriously ill with malaria the villagers simply accepted the fact that they were going to die and implied that Everett should do likewise. And there is a horrific story of an event witnessed by another missionary, in which a woman having a difficult labour was left to die on the beach because neither her husband nor her relatives were around to help her; when the missionary wanted to help he was told that she would reject his assistance. Yet in other ways they are helpful to one another and cooperative, and Everett finds them to be the happiest and most contented people he has encountered anywhere.

The book is in two parts: the first is more about Everett's life with his wife and young children among the Pirahãs, and the second is about the language. However, the distinction is not rigid and there is a lot of overlapping. The Pirahã language has very little grammar and no 'recursion': it is impossible to enclose one phrase inside another, as in 'John's brother's son' or 'I said that you are ugly'. Such sentences are not possible in Pirahã, though the same effect can be achieved by using two or more sentences. (There seems to be a lot of repetition in Pirahã.)

Everett uses his knowledge of the language to disagree with Chomsky's theory of universal grammar as an inbuilt feature of the brain. Some of the linguistic discussion is fairly technical, but this does not mean that the book as a whole is inaccessible to non-professionals. On the contrary, I found this one of the most absorbing accounts of an alien culture I have read. It makes one question a lot of one's basic assumptions about how humans think and how they see the world. The range of possibilities is clearly much wider than many of us suppose.

18 December 2008

%T Don't sleep, there are snakes
%S Life and language in the Amazonian jungle
%A Everett, Daniel
%I Profile Books
%C London
%D 2008
%G ISBN 978 1 84668 030 4
%P xviii + 300pp
%K language
%O illustrated

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