Everett: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
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Daniel L. Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes : Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. New York : Pantheon Books, 2008. xviii + 283 pages; illustrated.
Daniel L Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University. He has written a book that is the story of his young family's stay with the Piraha, a small group of people who live in the Amazon jungle. Everett went to the jungle as a missionary. His original purpose for the visit was to learn the language so that he could translate the Bible. It is a strategy Christian organizations use, hoping for religious conversion. The Piraha culture is very different than that of their American visitors. Everett's visit and the work he did with this group of people changed his world view completely.
This book is also an anthropological study of life among the Piraha and the other groups that share the land along the Maici River. It tells of their daily life, their knowledge of their environment and their relations with their neighbors. His observations of their daily life are filled with a a sense of excitement and interest. From the chapter on Families and Community:
It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of the village members. It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child. This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged as indicated by the remarks, expressions and gestures of others watching. I cannot recall having seen an adult intervene to stop another adult from violating community norms.
Most importantly Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes tells of Everett's study of the Piraha language. He describes his struggle to understand their language, the differences he found between Piraha and other languages and his reevaluation of his own linguistic education. His conclusions about the Piraha language run counter to the prevailing understanding of linguistics and have caused researchers to reevaluate beliefs about the relationship between language and culture.
I really enjoyed this book as it covers two of my favorite topics, anthropology and linguistics. It is exciting and, I felt, would be easy to read even for someone not familiar with those two disciplines. It is not simplistic and held my interest all the way through. I was fascinated by Everett's reevaluation of his own beliefs. This is a very honest book, the perfect kind of science book for the interested lay-person.
-- Notes by GG