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Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle Paperback – 6 Nov 2008
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Dan Everett has written an excellent book. First, it is a very powerful autobiographical account of his stay with the Piraha in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Second, it is a brilliant piece of ethnographical description of life among the Piraha. And third, and perhaps most important in the long run, his data and his conclusions about the language of the Piraha 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 Pirahas is a fascinating read. His observations and claims about the culture and language of the Pirahas are astounding. Whether or not all of his hypotheses turn out to be correct, Everett has forced many researchers to re-evaluate 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)
A remarkable and often painful story of anthropological endeavour (Caroline Sanderson Bookseller)
Astonishing... a warm tribute to this people's unique way of seeing the world... full of wonder while conveying the fragility of the Piraha way (Waterstone's Books Quarterly 2008-09-01)
Fascinating (Kirkus 2008-10-01)
Fascinating and candid (Publisher's Weekly 2008-09-29)
Unforgettable (Booklist 2008-11-01)
This is an astonishing book: a work of exploration, into the most distant place and language, but also a revelation of the way language is shaped by thought and circumstance (Ben Macintyre The Times 2008-10-25)
Rigorous (Stuart Kelly Scotland on Sunday 2008-11-09)
Destined to become a classic of popular enthnography (David Papineau Independent 2008-11-14)
[A] remarkable book. It is written with an immediacy even a Piraha might envy, and its conjunction of physical and intellectual adventure is irresistible (John Carey Sunday Times 2008-11-23)
A fascinating physical and intellectual adventure (Giles Foden Conde Nast Traveller 2008-12-01)
Everett writes simply and persuasively about language... A fascinating thesis... his courage and conviction should give linguists pause for thought (Andrew Anthony Observer 2008-11-16)
An extraordinary work of will and perseverance... A groundbreaking and beautifully realised study (Sunday Business Post 2008-11-23)
Irresistible account of a missionay's intriguing discoveries about language (Must Reads Sunday Times 2008-12-14)
Part Swiss Family Robinson, part Robinson Crusoe, it's one the greatest stories you'll ever read (Tom Galvin Evening Herald 2008-11-29)
Daniel Everett took his family to convert the Pirahas (pronounced pee-da-HAN), a remote people of the Amazonian jungle whose language no outsider had yet been able to understand. They encountered malaria, snakes, jaguars, spiders, insects, and a plot to kill them as they slept. But Everett gradually gained entry to this curious culture, and gave up trying to Christianise it. Along the way he discovered a language which disproved the most established tenets of linguistics.See all Product description
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Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
I bought recently and read it for a second time. I was even more impressed this time round. The author writes with skill and intelligence. He clearly has a high opinion of himself as an expert in his field, and I share it.
Like another of my favourite extrovert authors, Bill Bryson, Everett is fascinated by language. I was absorbed by his description of the language and his summary of some of the main debates in linguistics and how his own findings challenge the language instinct theory championed by Chomsky. During the last reading I often tried to pronounce the Piraha words, with the high and low tones and the glottal stops (there is a useful clip on YouTube).
Most of the incidents were vivid in my memory from my first reading, for example the football match in the jungle, but a few aspects of the book only really hit me second time round, such as the Pirahas' sexual promiscuity. The theoretical arguments are another and even I, who have an interest, sometimes found it hard to sustain attention, particularly at night in bed. For me significant thing is that such expert theories (in this case argued so persuasively by Pinker in the Language Instinct), which seek to hold the whole of human life and experience in their thrall, are in the end little more than passing intellectual fashion, an "insubstantial pageant".
There are clips on-line of the author talking about his work. These confirmed the conclusion I had already long reached. In one lecture he jokes about belief in religion and the supernatural and quite a few members of the audience are heard laughing. The implication is clear: they know better. Now the author says that it was his dealings with the Piraha that led him to abandon his religion. This may well have contributed, but as an extrovert peer pressure from his academic colleagues and what are increasingly mainstream atheist views in the West would have been the main reason. (And he notes in the book that it had been a long time coming.)
I suppose the Pirahas are probably among the very last of the long line of noble savages who caught the imagination, from Caliban onwards, a yardstick against which we can measure our civilization (unlike an earlier commentator I won't use inverted commas for this word).
One final point. The Pirahas' culture of "immediacy of experience" (here the inverted commas are justified) reminded me of many, many people I have met.
I heard the author talking about his travels and studies on BBC Radio 4 and thought his ideas about linguistics were interesting, but when I had a quick look at the book before I bought it I realised it was much more than an work about the theory of language. It's actually a rare combination of exciting adventure story, anthropology AND linguistics. The conclusions Everett reaches after 30 years of living amongst the Piraha people get right to the heart of what makes us who we are as human beings, and provide a fascinating insight into another way of life we would otherwise never have heard of, or at least would understand only superficially.
The first half of the book focuses on the lives of the Piraha (and the experiences of Everett living with them), the second half focuses on the linguistics. This structure works really well and the book is a great fusion of entertainment and information throughout.
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