Mentalfloss1, March 11, 2009 (view all comments by Mentalfloss1)
This is a good book about a fascinating and most unusual tribe, the Piraha of the Amazon basin. It seems that their language is unrelated to any other and that their world view, which is tied up with their language, is nearly entirely in the present moment.
The author begins as a Christian missionary setting out to gently convert the Piraha to his view of the world. Yet, without trying, the Piraha convert him. The author remarks that he was led to question his and his friends' levels of happiness relative to the happiness of the Piraha and found that the Piraha were the happiest people he'd ever known.
Partway through the book there's a lengthy exposition on linguistics that I found to be difficult and, in the end, not necessary to my personal enjoyment of the book. I do recommend this book.
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Rebecca Stillwell, January 7, 2009 (view all comments by Rebecca Stillwell)
We are raised with word-inducing thought patterns, and it's exciting to think that there are people who just see things as they are....now. This book is not unlike a Tim Cahill travel commentary, and as earthshaking as Henderson the Rain King in its ability to make one re-think the world.
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"Publishers Weekly Review"
by 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 Pirah 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. 'Kixih,' said the man. Everett pointed at a stick. 'Xi' said the man. Everett dropped the stick and said, 'I drop the xii.' 'Xi xi big kobi,' his new friend replied, meaning 'stick it ground falls.' Thus began 30 years of dedication to the Pirah 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 Pirah, Everett describes how he learned to speak fluent Pirah (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 Pirah 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, Pirah is evidence that culture plays a crucial and previously unacknowledged role in the creation of language.Everett's life with the Pirah 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 Pirah. Everett began his linguistic work as a Christian missionary, but the Pirah 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 Pirah friends — one where evidence matters. 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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
by John Searle, Slusser Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley,
"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."
by Edward Gibson, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
"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 reevaluate basic assumptions about the relationship among culture, language and cognition. I strongly recommend the book."
by Library Journal,
"Everett's findings about the language have led him to challenge some of the most widely accepted theories put forth by renowned linguists Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker."
by Chicago Tribune,
"Several of Everett's interpretations of the uniqueness of Piraha have been challenged by other linguists....[B]ut Everett's book is a good introduction to his side of the argument."
by Rocky Mountain News,
The author skillfully offers clear analogies in explaining how the Piraha language and culture differ from ours....This engaging true adventure is enthralling throughout."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"Everett's experiences and findings fairly explode from these pages and will reverberate in the minds of readers."
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