Don’t sleep, there are tons of boring linguistic details

I recently finished Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, an autobiographical account of Daniel Everett’s time as a Christian missionary to the Piraha (a small Amazon tribe), his analysis of the tribe’s unique language and linguistic structure, and his subsequent “deconversion.” There weren’t a TON of boring linguistic details – just a little too much academic theory for me. I thought I was going to read a travelogue/ethnography with a sprinkle of linguistic details. What I got was approximately half that, and half critical theory. But that’s okay.

Overall, I liked the book. I found some of linguistic theory pretty interesting, as I know very little about linguistics. In particular, Everett’s argument that culture influences language was cool – for example, the Piraha people culturally value the immediacy of experience, which practically means that they don’t have origin stories or creation myths, and that it’s linguistically hard for them to talk about things they haven’t directly experienced. This is in direct conflict to the theories of Noam Chomsky (“the father of modern linguistics”), which make an argument about how human grammar (or something like that) is more of an innate ability than a culturally influenced thing. Honestly though, I was more interested in the ethnographic details of the tribe and how they live, and it was sometimes hard to get through the really in-the-weeds linguistic details. (Which seemed to take up more than half of the book!)

Throughout the book, Everett praises the Piraha ability to live in the moment (there’s that “immediacy of experience” principle in practice), and their happiness and contentment with their life. This isn’t to say that Everett romanticizes their life – he’s candid about the threats to their way of life, including disease and land-hungry groups. He’s straightforward about how the Piraha reject outside influences to their language in culture because they believe themselves superior to all cultures. In fact, there’s a whole chapter about the murder by some Piraha teenagers of an Anapurina Indian and how the Pirahas subsequently expelled the Anapurinas from the Maici River, where they’d peacefully lived alongside the Pirahas for more than fifty years. This anecdote, according to Everett, illustrates “the dark side of Piraha culture. While the Piraha are very tolerant and peaceful to one another, they can be violent in keeping others out of their land” (148). Then, Everett goes on to talk about how Pirahas socially ostracize people who don’t maintain the norms of their community – including the teenager who murdered the Anapurina man.

One thing – in fact, a short parenthetical – toward the beginning of the book bothered me quite a lot. It’s in a part where Everett talks about Piraha sexual norms, and how village dances are a time of promiscuity:

“Aggression is observed from time to time, from mild to severe (Keren witnessed a gang rape of a young unmarried girl by most of the village men). But aggression is never condoned and is very rare” (84).

Everett then goes on to talk more about the dances and how the lack of formal rituals in the Piraha once again point to the immediacy of experience principle. But I was totally caught off guard about that parenthetical about a gang rape – I feel like a gang rape by “most of the village men” is a hell of a thing to confine to a parenthetical. It’s not like I’m looking for some moral outrage (though… maybe a bit of moral outrage is warranted for a gang rape???), but I think some kind of exploration of gender relations and possibly how the Pirahas accept or do not accept rape and other coercive practices would have been interesting and would have made the picture of the Pirahas more complete. There’s also a few other very brief anecdotes about gender and sexual relationships scattered throughout the book – a man and a prepubescent girl engage in sexual play; women and men speak slightly different language forms; there’s a gendered division of labor. But these are cursory details. Everett primarily spends time with men – it seems like most of his primary “language teachers” are men, and most of his anecdotes are about him and Piraha men. It makes sense that Everett, a man, would primarily hang out with the Piraha men in a gendered society. But the claims Everett makes about the happiness of the Piraha seem sour, a bit, when you realize that these claims are primarily about the men’s happiness.

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is not a straight-up ethnography – more like a combination of academic linguistic theory, anthropology, biography, and travelogue. This is a cool combination, but a combination that inevitably leaves some things out – namely, any in-depth discussion of gender and power dynamics. But I’m biased. This is the topic that is of the most interest to me, while Everett’s focus is primarily linguistics and the cultural implications of those linguistics. There’s not even too much about religion, even though the back cover copy sort of bills the book as almost a deconversion story – with a focus on the missionary who “eventually lost faith in the God he’d hope to introduce to them”. I think a detailed analysis of Everett’s deconversion and of American Christian foreign evangelism/colonialism overall would have been fascinating. But alas, that’s not what I got.

I really enjoyed this New Yorker article, which is about Daniel Everett and Don't Sleep, There are Snakes. It was like a companion piece to the book, almost, and provided some biographical background information about Everett and logistical details about his missionary work that the book lacked.