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

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I gave this book a relatively poor rating, not because I am a Christian minister and this book concludes (SPOILER ALERT) with the unsurprising revelation that through his work with the Piraha he had abandoned his Christian faith, but because it was a literary dog's dinner. Rarely have I heard the village completely quiet at night or noticed someone sleeping for several hours straight. Noam Chomsky and his adherents especially have a lot at stake since Chomsky's entire theory of human language rests on the idea of recursion. Maybe there had been something there that I just missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagaí, was still there.

Here is a book, with quirky title and quirkier cover image, which looks like the most annoying kind of comic travelogue. However, despite all this, Everett ultimately concludes that they are “better fit” for their environment than many people living in more industrialized countries. BUT - the issue was Everett has never been open to sharing his data (as he seemed to claim in this book). This was when, for the first time, my limited understanding (and belief) of Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar (UG) was challenged. I'm sure the fact that they won't believe second hand stories also helps, but the Pirahã plainly don't have any use for Western religion or technology.

Interesting stuff — but I wonder if the Pirahas are really doing without superstition, when they’re worried about the presence of evil spirits. Aggression is observed from time to time, from mild to severe (Keren witnessed a gang rape of a young unmarried girl by most of the village men).

The book provides many interesting examples regarding the Piraha language: there are only 11 or so phonemes in Piraha (compared to 44 in English), pitch in Piraha words constitute different communication "channels" (musical speech, hum speech, etc. I had gone to the Pirahãs to tell them about Jesus…, to give them an opportunity to choose purpose over pointlessness, to choose life over death, to choose joy and faith over despair and fear, to choose heaven over hell. Here, in fact, is a book about the relationship between language and culture; embedded within it comes the story of a missionary who went to convert the natives and ended up losing his faith.Their way of life was the same as it was 1,000 years ago, and would remain the same for the next 1,000 years. Everett is initially shocked at how indifferent the Pirahas seem when his wife and daughter are dangerously ill, shouting after him to bring supplies when he sets off on a nightmare trip to find medical help. Certainly an easy view to take of the Pirahas based on their language and culture is that it is more primitive: most of them couldn’t really learn to count, and they don’t have ways to talk about abstract ideas.

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