Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Well Thumbed Book: Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

by Karen Adler

I am using a prepositional phrase in this sentence. This is the subsequent sentence, and without writing a third sentence, I can connect this sentence with a correlative conjunction (a.k.a.and) to an independent thought.

What if there were a language without clauses, without colors, without numbers, and without words to draw the distinction between dreams and reality? Daniel Everett’s fascinating book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, is about such a language and more. Everett and his family were missionaries/linguists who lived with the Pirahã, an extremely isolated tribe of indigenous people in the heart of the Amazon.

Everett’s explanation of the Pirahã language is accessible and engrossing. Linguists have written about and debated whether the Pirahã language is even a true language, since it seems to lack so many elements that mainstream linguists have declared fundamental to human speech. When Everett tries to teach some Pirahã how to count, for instance, he is unable to get them to understand any number higher than eight. Yet he argues fiercely that the Pirahã’s language is as "normal" as any other.

His relations with the Pirahã extend beyond scholarly interest. His primary role was that of a missionary. In the book, he traces his evolving views on religion and his ultimate theological disillusionment, and the consequences this has on his missionary wife and young children, who remained among the Piraha, still trying to make converts, long after Everett returned to America to pursue his linguistic studies as a graduate student.

Though it deals with linguistics and anthropology, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is in no way a dry academic study. Everett has a knack for connecting readers with the feelings and opinions of the members of this otherwise incomprehensible tribe. He accomplished this feat through storytelling, character sketches, and absorbing, and sometimes heartrending anecdotes. To an American mindset, the Pirahã are very promiscuous and have no sense of privacy—they have no problems with sex in public. Everett’s difficulties explaining this to his two good Christian children will make anyone laugh.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is a memoir, anthropological study, linguistic thesis, and cross-cultural tale. The Pirahã are a remote tribe just waiting to be discovered. And best of all, to discover the Pirahã, you don’t have to experience a humid, mosquito-infested rainforest. All it takes is a trip to the bookstore.


Karen Adler is a student at Tufts University, where she is also a writing tutor and Content Editor of the Tufts Roundtable magazine, a journal of political debate and ideas. She grew up in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC, and was a frequent visitor to Politics & Prose in North Cleveland Park, Borders in Friendship Heights, and Barnes & Noble in Georgetown. She is always reading at least one book, if not two or three at once, and loves to recommend books to anyone and everyone.

The Well-Thumbed Book each week presents a recommendation for a book that may or may not have been a bestseller when it first came out, but which (in this reviewer's opinion) deserves to find a wide, ongoing, and appreciative readership.

1 comment:

  1. A certain teacher (whom I shall call Ms. Uhmmm) is mightily impressed by your writing skills! :-)