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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle 1st Edition

119 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375425028
ISBN-10: 0375425020
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Christine KenneallyThe ways language and thought intertwine have long intrigued scientists. Does language shape the way we see the world? Does the world influence the structure of language? Do we think in words? Such lofty questions pondered in many an ivory tower would go unanswered without the mostly anonymous work of field linguists. These scholars venture into isolated communities and wrestle with culture shock, broken tape recorders and dysentery—all to learn an unfamiliar language from the ground up. Their work is painstaking, and no matter how smart or how educated they are, their projects must begin with the most elementary communicative tactics—they point at a rock or a tree or a bird, and whether they are in Australia's Western Desert, the remote islands of Indonesia or the jungles of Brazil, their interlocutor will respond, rock or tree or bird in the native tongue. Dan Everett's life as a field linguist began when he entered a Pirahã village in the Amazonian jungle in December 1977. After being greeted by a happy, chattering crowd, he walked over to a man cooking on a small fire. First, he tapped his own chest and said, Daniel, then he pointed at the animal being cooked on the fire. Káixihí, said the man. Everett pointed at a stick. Xií said the man. Everett dropped the stick and said, I drop the xii. Xií xi bigí kíobíi, his new friend replied, meaning stick it ground falls. Thus began 30 years of dedication to the Pirahã and their native tongue, a mystifying system of sound and rules unrelated to any other language in the world. In this fascinating and candid account of life with the Pirahã, Everett describes how he learned to speak fluent Pirahã (pausing occasionally to club the snakes that harassed him in his Amazonian office). He also explains his discoveries about the language—findings that have kicked off more than one academic brouhaha. Everett learned that Pirahã does not use what are supposed to be universal aspects of grammar, an observation that runs counter to linguistic dogma about how culture, the brain and language connect. For Everett, Pirahã is evidence that culture plays a crucial and previously unacknowledged role in the creation of language.Everett's life with the Pirahã cost him dearly. He almost lost two family members to malaria, and his first marriage broke down after years of highly productive shared field work. But life in the Amazon taught him a great deal about human nature, too, perhaps more about his own than that of the Pirahã. Everett began his linguistic work as a Christian missionary, but the Pirahã were marvelously impervious to his promise of a life with Jesus. They pointed out that Everett simply had no proof for the supernatural world he described, and in the end he found himself agreeing with them. He left the church, choosing a world that more honestly integrated his goals as a scholar with the world view of his Pirahã friends—one where evidence matters. (Nov. 11)Christine Kenneally is the author of The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Absorbing. . . . Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes . . . shares its author's best traits: perseverance, insight, humor and humility. Both the Pirahas and their interpreter make splendid company, especially for readers drawn to the way language underpins how we mediate our world."--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"In this fascinating and candid account of life with the Pirahã, Everett describes how he learned to speak fluent Pirahã (pausing occasionally to club the snakes that harassed him in his Amazonian "office"). He also explains his discoveries about the language-findings that have kicked off more than one academic brouhaha."--Publishers Weekly, Signature Review

"Rich account of fieldwork among a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil . . . introduce[s] non-specialists to the fascinating ongoing debate about the origin of languages. . . . Everett's experiences and findings fairly explode from these pages and will reverberate in the minds of readers."--Kirkus, starred review

Dan Everett has written an excellent book. First, it is a very powerful autobiographical account of his stay with the Pirahã in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Second, it is a brilliant piece of ethnographical description of life among the Pirahã. And third, and perhaps most important in the long run, his data and his conclusions about the language of the Pirahã run dead counter to the prevailing orthodoxy in linguistics. If he is right, he will permanently change our conception of human language.”
–John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley

“Dan Everett is the most interesting man I have ever met. This story about his life among the Pirahãs is a fascinating read. His observations and claims about the culture and language of the Pirahãs are astounding. Whether or not all of his hypotheses turn out to be correct, Everett has forced many researchers to reevaluate basic assumptions about the relationship among culture, language and cognition. I strongly recommend the book.”
–Edward Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 283 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (November 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375425020
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375425028
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #547,683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Dan Everett (1951) was born in Holtville, California. He has worked in the Amazon jungles of Brazil for over 30 years, among more than one dozen different tribal groups. He is best-known for his long-term work on the Pirahã language. He has published more than 90 articles and six books on linguistic theory and the description of endangered Amazonian languages. His most recent book, Don't sleep, there are snakes: life and language in the Amazonian jungle (Pantheon), was selected by National Public Radio as one of the best books of 2009 in the US, by Blackwell's bookstores as one of the best of 2009 in the UK , and was an 'editor's choice' of the London Sunday Times. It was also a featured BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. His book, Language: The cultural tool (Pantheon), was a New York Times Editor's Choice .

His forthcoming book, from the University of Chicago Press is: Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. He is currently working on the book, How Language Began, for Liveright Publishers (US) and Profile Books (UK).

A documentary of his life and work, The Grammar of Happiness, was released worldwide in 2012. It is available through the Smithsonian Channel in the USA. The Grammar of Happiness has now won first prize for Human Sciences at the Jackson Hole Film Festival. It won the Young Europeans Jury Award at the FIPA Film Festival in Biarritz, France. It is a finalist for best science film of 2012 at the Pariscience Film Festival.

A play based on Everett's life, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, will premier in London in Spring 2016. Everett is currently Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

105 of 111 people found the following review helpful By KmVictorian VINE VOICE on November 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you like strange languages and exotic jungle adventures, you'll love this book. It has plenty of both!

The author, Daniel L. Everett, is Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University. He spent many of his younger years living with and studying the aboriginal Piraha people of Brazil. Their language "defies all existing linguistic theories" and "reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding." Unrelated to any other known language, the Piraha dialect is so confusing that most outsiders have given up on it. The Pirahas whistle and hum as they talk, and a given verb can potentially have as many as 65,000 forms. Everett, however, has been able to puzzle out the strange grammatical quirks of Piraha expressions.

This book tells in fascinating detail about Everett's struggles with the language, the land, and the culture of the Pirahas. This struggle ultimately cost the author his faith and broke up his family. The language theories which he developed as a result of his acquaintance with the Piraha tongue have also put him in conflict with the ideas of distinguished linguist Noam Chomsky.

However, it is obvious that Everett feels the Piraha experience has been the defining mission of his life and is well worth what it has cost him personally. I recommend this book both for its page-turning excitement and its insights on the nature of human language.
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85 of 89 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on December 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Daniel L. Everett is a linguist who first visited the Pirahã tribe as a family man and missionary. His experiences over the next 30 years broke up his family, put him at odds with the linguistic establishment, turned him into an atheist --- and have provided us with a fascinating book, which is part Boy Scout adventure, part reality TV, part crisis of faith, part anthropological study, and part linguistic treatise.

The Pirahã (pronounced Pee-da-HAN) are a little known tribe of Amazonian Indians who live on the banks of two rivers in territory that, before Everett encountered them, had never been assigned officially to the tribe but that they defended, occasionally to the death. Largely peaceful, they have intermarried and retained a very primitive lifestyle that they consider to be in every way superior to that of outsiders, including Americans, for thousands of years. They are far less colorful than many Amazonian groups, with no decorative arts or inventions. They purchase some pots and axes and make their own bows and arrows. If a plane comes, boys will make models of the planes but will throw them away days later. They live in the crudest of rudimentary stick and leaf shelters and survive by eating manioc, which simply grows nearby without being cultivated, and by hunting and fishing. They have no special rituals, and apart from the occasional visit from a spirit to frighten or inform them, they have no religion.

When Everett took his family and went to live for shorter and longer periods of time with this strange tribe, he was expected to learn their language, make a translation of the Bible and then convert the natives. What he learned was that the language itself held the key to their culture.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on April 16, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The Pirahã are the "Show me!" tribe of the Brazilian Amazon. They don't bother with fiction or tall tales or even oral history. They have little art. They don't have a creation myth and don't want one. If they can't see it, hear it, touch it or taste it, they don't believe in it.

Missionaries have been preaching to the Pirahãs for 200 years and have converted not one. Everett did not know this when he first visited them in 1977 at age 26. A missionary and a linguist, he was sent to learn their language, translate the Bible for them, and ultimately bring them to Christ.

Instead, they brought him to atheism. "The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile."

Not that they have escaped religion entirely. Spirits live everywhere and may even caution or lecture them at times. But these spirits are visible to the Pirahãs, if not to Everett and his family, who spent 30 years, on and off, living with the tribe.

But they don't have marriage or funeral ceremonies. Cohabitation suffices as the wedding announcement and divorce is accomplished just as simply, though there may be more noise involved. Sexual mores are governed by common sense rather than stricture, which means that single people have sex at will while married people are more circumspect.

People are sometimes buried with their possessions, which are few, and larger people are often buried sitting "because this requires less digging." But there is no ritual for each family to follow.

"Perhaps the activity closest to ritual among the Pirahãs is their dancing. Dances bring the village together.
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69 of 79 people found the following review helpful By Willie on January 11, 2010
Format: Paperback
I first got wind of Daniel Everett's work on the Piraha from a fantastic article that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago (see the link below if you're interested). I was immediately and deeply intrigued: the article presented a captivating glimpse into what by all accounts was groundbreaking work--work that had the potential to upend the current framework in which we think about language, culture, and the mind. After reading the article, I was hungry for more information and specifics about the Piraha people and their language, and a few years later, when I saw that Daniel Everett had published a book, I eagerly picked up a copy, excited to delve deeper into his work.

The good news is that "Don't Sleep There Are Snakes" does indeed provide much more detail, both about the Piraha culture and the language. At the end of the book, the reader has a much better idea of what the Piraha are all about and what lessons they can teach us. And this is what I ultimately wanted to get out of the book.

The bad news is that Everett is not much of a writer, or even a particularly good storyteller. None of the narrative grace of the New Yorker article is present in this book, and before long, this gets irritating. Which is a shame, because Everett's story is such a fascinating one, one that could by all means make for a fantastic book. But Everett's style is clumsy and ham-handed; the individual chapters do not connect well with one another, and even within the chapters paragraphs can seem poorly pieced together. Perhaps not everyone will agree with my opinions here, but I think one should be aware going into this book that Everett is no prose master.

Part of the problem with the book's style is a conflict of aims.
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