Monday, January 19, 2015

Book Retro-Review: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

A review from 2012, with later addenda.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Daniel J. Everett
Ethnography, linguistics, autobiography

Daniel Everett has spent a lot of time living with the Pirahã Indians, who by his account have a very unusual culture and language—there’s basically no way to refer to anything that the speaker or someone known to him hasn’t actually experienced, for example. The different aspects of the book are occasionally somewhat disjointed, and the deep dive into Everett’s linguistic quarrels with the Noam Chomsky/Steven Pinker school will make some readers’ interest wander. On the whole, though, this is a genuinely intriguing account of some human beings who are both fundamentally different from and fundamentally the same as us.

I do wonder whether Everett’s determination to discover a connection between Pirahã culture and language is based in his own history. He originally went to Brazil as a missionary, and was shocked to discover that the Pirahã found his Jesus talk pointless and irrelevant. Reading between the lines, that seems to have been a real eye-opener for Everett, and perhaps it made him too ready to embrace the “alien” aspects of the Pirahã. I could come up with some additional or alternative analyses for a lot of his cases. For example: Everett notes that “no Amazonian group that I have worked with has ‘motherese,’ or baby talk” and that the Pirahã treat their children as, generally, miniature adults. Is it not likely that this is simply a case of cultural adaptation to their physical circumstances? Tribes that coddle their children probably get wiped out. (Philippe Ariès made essentially the same claim about medieval Europeans, but that the latter assertion has since been very strongly challenged—I might even say “debunked”—so there’s room for skepticism here.)

A good companion book (and, in part, a counterargument) is John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. (McWhorter illustrates his point with an imaginary headline: “Language Shocker: Tribe That Doesn’t Wear Clothes Has No Word For Pants”.)


  1. My personal experience with language has been that there are more bridges than gaps. Even something as different as Japanese, which seems to be in a category its own (though some say it is related to Korean and Turkish), has more similarities that differences. We're all human.

    I remember some years back hearing stories about how an Inuit language had some huge number of words for "snow." And doesn't that make it so very different. Honestly, that just makes sense. There's a lot of snow where these folks live, so they have lots of words for snow.

    I hear that in the world of typography, they have different words for the same way to write letters. Each is a "font" and the name of each "font" has a different word describing it, like "arial" and "calibri." And doesn't that make these typographers so very different from us.

    You see what I mean.

  2. The "Inuit people have N words for snow" story, where N is some non-trivial number, has been supported, debunked, rebunked, repatriated, debated, denied, and affirmed for some years now. I won't attempt to recapitulate the debate. The companion book I reference, McWhorter's The Language Hoax, talks about this idea in some detail.

    My personal opinion is: here in New England, we have "snow", "slush", "freezing rain", "freezing drizzle", "powder", "packed powder", "ice", "hail", "sleet", and "wintry mix" (which sounds like a snack food, but isn't). It seems to me that, by that standard, we're not all that unlike the alleged Inuit.

    To generalize a little further, I had a somewhat mixed reaction along these lines last year when we visited the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, NM. It's a fine museum, but after a while I started seeing a kind of ... I can only call it "would-be-benign reverse racism". The message is that Indians--all of them--are spiritual, giving, community-centered, and holistic. My feeling is that, in implying this, they're (a) also implying that, say, a Navajo who chooses to become an aerospace engineer is "not a true Navajo", and (b) neglecting the fact that we are, all of us (and as you say), 100% fully human, and that therefore all of us have all of the potentialities of that state.