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”.)