Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes


Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
Daniel Everett
2008, Profile Books
300 pages, 8 colour plates

THIS IS an intriguing foray into linguistic anomalies found in lowland Amazonia in the language of the Pirahã tribe, whom the author first encountered as a missionary but came to know and love as a linguist. Their language reflects a culture of living in the present that, according to the author, contradicts some of the fundamental theoretical tenets of linguistic theory. Everett argues that the Pirahã tongue lacks what Noam Chomsky and generations of linguists have always insisted is essential to all human language, “recursion”, or the ability to collect a series of thoughts together into a sentence with more than one clause. Recursion enables “discrete infinity” by embedding phrases within phrases of the same type in a hierarchical structure and is considered the only trait that differentiates human and animal communication. Everett has challenged this, arguing that cultural factors made recursion unnecessary in the development of the Pirahã tongue. As a result, the tribe accept as real only what they see, and only observable experience counts. It is an important and controversial departure that has provoked much debate in his field by linking linguistic development with culture in a novel way. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is a candid and intelligent ethnographic study by a scholar who encountered the tribe as a religious man but ended up questioning his own beliefs. As a result, it is worth reading regardless of its linguistic theme for its insights into how understanding can overcome dramatic cultural differences. – EC

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