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Don't Sleep There Are Snakes

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Daniel L. Everett

The Piraha are the "Show me!" tribe of the Brazilian Amazon. They don't bother with fiction or tall tales or even oral history. They have little art. They don't have a creation myth and don't want one. If they can't see it, hear it, touch it or taste it, they don't believe in it.

Missionaries have been preaching to the Pirahas for 200 years and have converted not one. Everett did not know this when he first visited them in 1977 at age 26. A missionary and a linguist, he was sent to learn their language, translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ.

Instead, they brought him to atheism. "The Pirahas have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile."

Not that they have escaped religion entirely. Spirits live everywhere and may even caution or lecture them at times. But these spirits are visible to the Pirahas, if not to Everett and his family, who spent 30 years, on and off, living with the tribe.

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But they don't have marriage or funeral ceremonies. Cohabitation suffices as the wedding announcement and divorce is accomplished just as simply, though there may be more noise involved. Sexual mores are governed by common sense rather than stricture, which means that single people have sex at will while married people are more circumspect.

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People are sometimes buried with their possessions, which are few, and larger people are often buried sitting "because this requires less digging." But there is no ritual for each family to follow.

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"Perhaps the activity closest to ritual among the Pirahas is their dancing. Dances bring the village together. They are often marked by promiscuity, fun, laughing, and merriment by the entire village. There are no musical instruments involved, only singing, clapping, and stomping of feet."

Everett's language studies began without benefit of dictionary or primer. None of the Pirahas spoke any English or more than the most rudimentary Portuguese. (Among their many eccentricities is their total lack of interest in any facet of any other culture including tools or language - not that they won't use tools, like canoes, they just won't make them or absorb them into their culture.)

Amazingly, "Piraha is not known to be related to any other living human language."

At first it seems rather deprived. There are only 11 phonemes (speech sounds). There are no numbers, no words for colors. No words for please, thank you or sorry. There are, however, tones, whistles and clicks. And the language comes in three forms - regular plus Humming speech and Yelling speech.

Over the years, Everett comes to the conclusion that the Piraha language reflects and arises from their culture in its directness, immediacy and simplicity. Ultimately he defies Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar (Piraha lacks a basic requirement) and starts a firestorm in the linguistics field. Everett alludes mildly to this in the book, but a little Internet browsing will leave readers shocked at the way linguists talk to one another.

There are plenty of anecdotes involving the reader in Everett's adventures, hardships, terrors, epiphanies and the pure strangeness of daily life with a people who live in the immediate present and whose most common "good night" is "Don't sleep, there are snakes." (sound sleep is dangerous and, besides, toughening themselves is a strong cultural value - foodless days are also common) .

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