(Please note that the people and language referred to here, Piraha, has a tilde — a little squiggle — over the final ‘a,’ but said squiggle is nowhere to be found in my word program.)
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (published 2008, US and UK) proves the contention that some of the most enlightening “travel” books are written not by travel writers, but by researchers and explorers. Because you won’t find Daniel Everett’s book in the travel literature section. It’s packed, like many great travel books, in the Nature/Science department, and classified as linguistics/anthropology.
And yet, anyone wanting to learn about some of the most remote parts of the Brazilian Amazon and the native tribes that maintain traditional lifestyles there would be hard-pressed to find a better resource than Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.
Everett went to live among the Piraha people in 1977. A linguist and missionary employed by a Christian organization to learn the Piraha language and then translate the Bible into it, he went up the Amazon with his wife and three small children to live in a hut and learn what he could about these supposedly simple people.
He spent the next 30 years living on and off with the Piraha, delving into their culture and language, and finding himself faced finally with some startling conclusions in both his personal and professional life. The book that results from his total of seven years among his Piraha friends is an honest, sensitive, and often intellectual account of a people with a very different worldview from his own, and the implications this worldview has on our understandings not only of linguistics, but grammar, anthropology, psychology, and the formation of culture.
The fact that the Pirahas’ worldview ends up “converting the missionary” — Everett loses his Christian faith as a result of his contact with the Piraha — is treated as a bit of by-the-way towards the end of the book, but its meaning is powerful.
Everett went to the Amazon hoping to teach a native people how Jesus Christ could give them salvation. He found two barriers. The first was that the Piraha have little concept of time, personal property, or any method of counting (which makes passage of days and exchange of money conceptually difficult at best). They live, as he repeatedly states, very much in the present. And they’re happy that way. In order to convert people to religion, they must be convinced that their lives are empty and they need salvation, which Pirahas most emphatically do not.
The second was for him possibly more profound. As Everett learned more of their language, he found that the Pirahas believe absolutely nothing that they haven’t seen with their own eyes (or is related to them by an actual eyewitness), which makes faith in the story of a man who lived 2000 years ago hard to impart. “If you want to tell the Pirahas something,” he says, “they are going to want to know how you came by your knowledge. And especially they will want to know if you have direct evidence for your assertion.” As he reaffirmed this eyewitness expectation over the years, he began to realize that, as a scientist and researcher, he expected the same thing. Instead of converting the Piraha to Christianity, Everett became, as he states, a “nontheist.”
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is broken up, aside from the conclusion, into two parts. The first, “Life,” dedicates itself to scenes and stories from Everett’s time among the Piraha people. This first section is likely the most interesting to readers of travel literature. While the writing isn’t Colin Thubron, it is clear, honest, and compelling. There is also some great storytelling, including a dramatic chapter in which Everett tries to get his family to a town with a hospital as his wife and oldest daughter slowly die of untreated malaria (they survived).
The second section, “Language,” seems at first a little too pedantic and “researchy” for the armchair traveler. But if you’re interested in cross-cultural understanding, Everett’s value as a field researcher is practically unparalleled in this day and age. He is one of the only people ever to have learned the Piraha language, and his research into it is turning the fields of linguistics and anthropology on their heads.
The question of whether grammar defines culture and perception or vice versa dominates this latter half of the book. Everett delves deep into a rift his research has created in linguistics, but, in managing to keep the language simple and straightforward enough for the lay reader, and in constantly bringing in as examples stories about the Piraha, he keeps “Language” from getting bogged down in obsession about a linguistic paradigm shift that may topple Noam Chomsky as the world’s premier linguist. (If you do read it, and want to understand fully what he’s talking about, I recommend starting with Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct rather than Chomsky himself, whose writing can be heavily mathematical.)
And Everett brings the book around to one essential point, which is the importance of field research to any mutual understanding of cultures. Just think how much of your own travels have been eased, and in some cases even made possible, by anthropologists, biologists, and even linguists setting out to unseen territories and unknown people.
First come the explorers, then the adventurers, then the researchers, then finally travelers followed by tourists. Our path is eased by people such as Daniel Everett doing the hard ground work, building bridges of comprehension and finally empathy for the rest of us to walk on.