sleeping with snakes, a linguist’s life in the Amazon

October 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

dontsleepDaniel Everett has made a name for himself in linguistics circles – actually that means that others have given him names, sometimes not very complimentary ones. He has lived with and described the Pirahã language of the Amazon basin, and rather famously contradicted some widely held universals in language. The Pirahã, he has claimed, do not have a number system, and do not have true quantifiers.  Many linguists dismissed his argument, rather ad hominemly (to coin an adverb) because he was an SIL missionary, claiming that one could not be a real linguist and a proselytizer. However, in a recent book, Don’t sleep, there are snakes, London: Profile Books, we get a bit of linguistics, a bit of culture, and a very personal account of living with his family in the Pirahã culture for a couple of decades.

This is a very human story about the desire to achieve great things, profound faith in things – universal grammar and God – and what happens when faith is shaken. It is also a very interesting portrait of the Pirahã people, who seem to have little interest in the outside world, material possession and Everett’s god.

Everett presents scenes from fieldwork, its highs and lows, its frustrations and its eureka moments of insight, making him appear a very human linguist. He also presents a very interesting case for a particularly cultural view of the grammar of Pirahã derived by what he calls the principle of immediacy of experience. 

Declarative Pirahã utterances contain only assertions related directly to the moment of speech, either experienced or witnessed by someone alive during the lifetime of the speaker (Everett, 2009, p.132).

Pirahã do not talk about things they have not experienced, consequently they have no oral record of history, and he says little curiosity in the origins of things. He also suggests the language does not allow recursion, i.e. the embedding of ideas into other ideas, ruling out relative clause structures, and even conjunction of phrases and clauses with the equivalent of  ‘and’. This is a very profound claim as much has been made of recursion as a hallmark of human language. His analysis of this claim is that Pirahã sentences must contain assertions, and a relative clause does not contain a full assertion. He compares, by way of illustration the sequence of  Pirahã clauses, Bring back some nails, Dan bought those nails. They are the same,  equivalent to the English Bring the nails that Dan bought.  Everett claims that the nails that Dan bought does not contain an assertion (cf, Everett 2009, p.237)

Everett tries to link the grammatical and cultural constraints limiting Pirahã to immediacy with other  elements of their worldview – they don’t store food, even though they know how, they don’t plan for the future or talk about times remote in either direction. They weave baskets on the spot for carrying things rather than more durable containers. They utilise a simple kinship system that does not identify 3 generations preceding ego.

Whatever we think of Everett’s claims, this is an absorbing book. I read it in a day. Whether we focus on his work documenting the Pirahã language, his reflections on Chomksyan linguistics, or simply the day  to day life of a field linguist, Everett’s account of his years on the Maici river offers a chance to reflect on how all these issues meet in the field.



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