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

05 Jun 2010

A great read.

Half memoirs, half linguistics, this book is the personal story of Daniel Everett, who lived amongst the Parahã amazon natives. His original mission was to convert them to Jesus, and his work was sponsored by some or another missionary group, but in the end, they converted him to atheism.

About 1/3 of the book is fairly involved linguistics, although dumbed down enough for a layman. The Pirahã language is unique in that it does not exhibit recursion; there are no relative clauses, articles, or things like ‘Jane or I’. It kind of flips off all of the existing linguistics stuff, because Chomsky’s universal grammar says that recursion has to exist in every language. It’s cool stuff if you are a nerd about this, and I am.

The book is good otherwise. It’s got a lot of good anecdotes about living in the Amazon, which rather made me want to visit.

The only disappointing part of the book is the author’s story of flailing faith. The peculiar nature of Pirahã culture, and its language, are somewhat incompatible with the idea of Christianity–the language requires verbs be appended with a suffix which denotes how one obtained information (direct witness, heard from an eyewitness, or hearsay). This feature exists in other languages, but unlike other languages, there is no way in Pirahã to correctly say what a man 2000 years ago did–no eyewitnesses exist. The chicken-egg question between culture and language is not something I’ll go into here, but it’s a cool way to look at things. Anyway, this portion is brief, probably because it is painful–I imagine the guy had no stateside friends left after becoming an atheist, what having spent his life working for missionary organizations. But as an atheist myself, I kind of wanted more here.

But its a tiny quibble–and a good book.