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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle Paperback – Nov 3 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (Nov. 3 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307386120
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307386120
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.3 x 1.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 295 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #18,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Richard on Feb. 10 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have read many missionary books over the years, but this one is the best... not just because I'm an atheist now, but because of the amazingly clear way he writes and presents such a detailed description of the Piraha. It's as if you really get to know them.

I can't recommend this book highly enough!

My only criticism and complaint (hence the 4 stars) is because I was primarily interested in his deconversion as a result of the Piraha's outlook and lifestyle, and the turmoil that resulted... and the struggles and questions he wrestled with... and the price he paid... BUT THAT WASN'T THERE! AAAHH! I mean, yes, he mentions it... and summarizes it in the last chapter... but with far too little detail.

I hope he writes a second book - and makes it all about that. I will definitely buy it.

This book definitely left me wanting more... and if I hadn't been so looking forward to more information about his deconversion, I would definitely have given it 5 stars. Excellent book. Will recommend.
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Format: Paperback
I had been sent a lenghty article on Everett's book and work and I had seen very interesting videos and interviews on the web about his book and his life. Even so, the book proved fascinating.

This book is about the Pirahas, a life lived like no other live life, and a study of their language through culture. We learn about them, we learn about ourselves.

It is rich and detailed. It is easy to read, even the part about the language per se. Every now and then, I found myself thinking: "Those are real people, and this is how they see life, this is how they live life! For real!" The way their language is built is also fascinating.

While reading, I was also wondering on whether someone can really adapt completely to a change of life, to a change of culture. What makes us alike, what makes us different. Can we change our mind on the importance we've given to certain things, certain values, certain ways? This book, without trying to, goes beyond the "simple" telling of who, how and why the Pirahas are. It tells of humanity.
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By Yanick Dube on Nov. 27 2010
Format: Hardcover
Is this a memoir? An anthropological study of a remote and isolated people? Or a travelogue? Answer: a wonderful mix of all three, and then some. Every now and then stories pop up in the news about so-called primitive people, maybe because they have just been "discovered", or they suffer from logging, farming, whatever it may be. Perhaps far worst, a lot of "primitive" societies have been pestered by missionaries for centuries now - but lo and behold, there is at least one tribe of unconquered people deep in the Amazon forest which has been resisting against assimilation for over three centuries, thanks to their unique culture. This book makes it clear that we have much to learn from the "primitive" humans who still inhabit our world, despite our best efforts to civilize them. This is an intelligent read, well written and engaging, which I warmly recommend to any curious mind.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dr. O. Cadsky on Feb. 28 2009
Format: Hardcover
Starry-eyed bible-basher meets reality. Fortunately, he notices.
Most of what you know about "normal human behaviour" is wrong.
Doubly so about Chomsky's theories.
A great book, not too technical, an easy read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 93 reviews
98 of 103 people found the following review helpful
A Book It's Hard to Put Down Nov. 21 2008
By KmVictorian - Published on
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.
75 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Life and language of the Pirahã people Dec 16 2008
By Bookreporter - Published on
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. And discovering the essence of that culture, he realized that they would never be converted --- not as long as they remained as they are --- and he saw no reason to change them, just as they saw no reason to change themselves.

There is an illustrative story (among many) of Everett being approached by men in the tribe who wanted him to buy them a big canoe from a neighboring tribe. With all the right instincts as a missionary and development agent, he did everything needed to transfer the skill of canoe construction to them. He invited the neighbors to come in and demonstrate, and insisted that the Pirahã men work alongside them. Not long afterwards, the same men came to him for money to buy another big boat. "I told them they could make their own now. They said, `Pirahãns don't make canoes.'"

Everett came to understand that the Pirahãns live entirely in the moment. They have no creation myths, no history past the living generations. Their language, which has only a few words, speaks primarily of immediacies, and is so dependent on tone that it can be hummed or whistled for clarification. All verbs have up to 65,000 combinations but only a handful of tenses. Everett is one of the few outsiders who ever learned to speak it, but he believes that after 30 years, the Pirahã people still do not regard him as a speaker any more than we consider a computer to be an English speaker. The tribe does not theorize or plan. They just exchange chit-chat. Yet the typical Pirahã is happier, Everett believes, "than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known."

The Pirahãns did not accept Jesus because they had never met Him. Their simple view deeply affected Everett, who had been well trained as a missionary to confront and overcome almost any challenge --- superstition, malaria, filth, alligators. But this startling way of looking at life as entirely evidential shook his faith and eventually caused him to confess that he had lost it. Everett not only shocked his missionary peers and fractured his marriage; he sent ripples through the linguistic establishment with his claims about the construction of the Pirahã language, saying it did not build upon itself and was not recursive, which challenged the theories of the great Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's linguistic doctrine postulates a universal grammar, ever-increasing, ever able to branch out and express ever more complex concepts. Everett was saying that, perhaps unique in the world, here in the Amazon was a group of people whose language did not grow, whose experience did not expand with increased contact with the outside, and who liked it that way.

As Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University, Everett has proven his points and earned his laurels. He still visits with the Pirahã.

--- Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott
63 of 72 people found the following review helpful
Fantastic Subject, But Poorly Presented Jan. 11 2010
By Willie - Published on
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. On the one hand, the book is written for a general audience, and I think it does a very good job in this regard. It presents all its information (even the more difficult academic bits) in an easy-to-follow manner, with plenty of examples to illustrate its points. There's nothing wrong with this approach in itself, but it flounders in this case because of the book's less than stellar composition.

On the other hand, the book is also trying to present years of academic research and, more importantly, to make a point, and a controversial one at that. And here its general-audience presentation works against it. Everett's discussions of conceptual issues in linguistics are just too watered down to carry any weight. His arguments against Chomsky (which I'm very sympathetic to) are mostly just knocking down straw men, and do not give a honest presentation and refutation of Chomsky's and others' views. Even Everett's arguments for his own ideas come off as superficial, lacking the rigor and precision they would need to really convince (me, at least). In addition, Everett's discussions of his actual research stop short of full detail, and still left me with further questions.

All this being said, however, I still think this is a worthwhile book. Sometimes the content of a subject matter can outshine even the worst of presentations. And Everett's work really is fascinating, in more ways than one. If you're interested in language, culture, and the connections between the two (as well as those with psychology, philosophy, and more), this book is definitely of interest. Just don't go in expecting a flawless work.

(The New Yorker article about Everett and his work can be accessed here: [...])
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
An Amazon tribe converts the missionary April 16 2009
By Lynn Harnett - Published on
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. They are often marked by promiscuity, fun, laughing, and merriment by the entire village. There are no musical instruments involved, only singing, clapping, and stomping of feet."

Everett's language studies began without benefit of dictionary or primer. None of the Pirahãs spoke any English or more than the most rudimentary Portuguese (Among their many eccentricities is their total lack of interest in any facet of any other culture including tools or language - not that they won't use tools, like canoes, they just won't make them or absorb them into their culture).

Amazingly, "Pirahã is not known to be related to any other living human language."

At first it seems rather deprived. There are only 11 phonemes (speech sounds). There are no numbers, no words for colors. No words for please, thank you or sorry. There are, however, tones, whistles and clicks. And the language comes in three forms - regular plus Humming speech and Yelling speech.

Over the years Everett comes to the conclusion that the Pirahã language reflects and arises from their culture in its directness, immediacy and simplicity. Ultimately he defies Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar (Pirahã lacks a basic requirement) and starts a firestorm in the linguistics field. Everett alludes mildly to this in the book, but a little Internet browsing will leave readers shocked - shocked! - at the way linguists talk to one another.

There are plenty of anecdotes involving the reader in Everett's adventures, hardships, terrors, epiphanies and the pure strangeness of daily life with a people who live in the immediate present and whose most common "good-night" is "Don't sleep, there are snakes." (sound sleep is dangerous and, besides, toughening themselves is a strong cultural value - foodless days are also common).

Fascinating as both anthropological memoir and linguistic study, Everett's book will appeal to those interested in very not-North American cultures and in the ways people shape language and it shapes us.

It's a book that rouses a sense of wonder and gives rise to even more questions than it answers.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating; could use a bit of editing Dec 29 2008
By G. R. Lewis - Published on
Format: Hardcover
My introduction to linguistics came in the late 60's, in the heady early days of the Chomskyian revolution. I remain fascinated by human language, and this book was like intellectual candy. Everett's heroic efforts to understand the Pirahã language and culture have touched off firestorms in several academic fields. It will be most interesting to see what's left when the dust settles. At the moment, it appears that Chomsky and his faithful are redefining some of their terms in an attempt to rescue their dogma.
There are a few minor inconsistencies in the book that Everett should fix in a second edition. For example, he states unequivocally that the Pirahã have no number words, then later translates a passage as meaning "There were two pigs." I contacted him and he explained that this translation was done early in his research, when he believed the language did have number words; a more accurate translation would be "There were a larger quantity of pigs."
As I said, fascinating.

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