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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle Cover

ISBN13: 9780307386120
ISBN10: 0307386120
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

Prologue

“Look! There he is, Xigagaí, the spirit.”

“Yes, I can see him. He is threatening us.”

“Everybody, come see Xigagaí. Quickly! He is on the beach!”

I roused from my deep sleep, not sure if I was dreaming or hearing this conversation. It was 6:30 on a Saturday morning in August, the dry season of 1980. The sun was shining, but not yet too hot. A breeze was blowing up from the Maici River in front of my modest hut in a clearing on the bank. I opened my eyes and saw the palm thatch above me, its original yellow graying from years of dust and soot. My dwelling was flanked by two smaller Pirahã huts of similar construction, where lived Xahoábisi, Kóhoibiíihíai, and their families.

Mornings among the Pirahãs, so many mornings, I picked up the faint smell of smoke drifting from their cook fires, and the warmth of the Brazilian sun on my face, its rays softened by my mosquito net. Children were usually laughing, chasing one another, or noisily crying to nurse, the sounds reverberating through the village. Dogs were barking. Often when I first opened my eyes, groggily coming out of a dream, a Pirahã child or sometimes even an adult would be staring at me from between the paxiuba palm slats that served as siding for my large hut. This morning was different.

I was now completely conscious, awakened by the noise and shouts of Pirahãs. I sat up and looked around. A crowd was gathering about twenty feet from my bed on the high bank of the Maici, and all were energetically gesticulating and yelling. Everyone was focused on the beach just across the river from my house. I got out of bed to get a better look—and because there was no way to sleep through the noise.

I picked my gym shorts off the floor and checked to make sure that there were no tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes, or other undesirables in them. Pulling them on, I slipped into my flip- flops and headed out the door. The Pirahãs were loosely bunched on the riverbank just to the right of my house. Their excitement was growing. I could see mothers running down the path, their infants trying to hold breasts in their mouths.

The women wore the same sleeveless, collarless, midlength dresses they worked and slept in, stained a dark brown from dirt and smoke. The men wore gym shorts or loincloths. None of the men were carrying their bows and arrows. That was a relief. Prepubescent children were naked, their skin leathery from exposure to the elements. The babies bottoms were calloused from scooting across the ground, a mode of locomotion that for some reason they prefer to crawling. Everyone was streaked from ashes and dust accumulated by sleeping and sitting on the ground near the fire.

It was still around seventy- two degrees, though humid, far below the hundred- degree- plus heat of midday. I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I turned to Kóhoi, my principal language teacher, and asked, “Whats up?” He was standing to my right, his strong, brown, lean body

tensed from what he was looking at.

“Dont you see him over there?” he asked impatiently. “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, is standing on the beach yelling at us, telling us he will kill us if we go to the jungle.”

“Where?” I asked. “I dont see him.”

“Right there!” Kóhoi snapped, looking intently toward the middle of the apparently empty beach.

“In the jungle behind the beach?”

“No! There on the beach. Look!” he replied with exasperation.

In the jungle with the Pirahãs I regularly failed to see wildlife they saw. My inexperienced eyes just werent able to see as theirs did.

But this was different. Even I could tell that there was nothing on that white, sandy beach no more than one hundred yards away. And yet as certain as I was about this, the Pirahãs were equally certain that there was something there. Maybe there had been something there that I just missed seeing, but they insisted that what they were seeing, Xigagaí, was still there.

Everyone continued to look toward the beach. I heard Kristene, my six- year- old daughter, at my side.

“What are they looking at, Daddy?”

“I dont know. I cant see anything.”

Kris stood on her toes and peered across the river. Then at me. Then at the Pirahãs. She was as puzzled as I was.

Kristene and I left the Pirahãs and walked back into our house. What had I just witnessed? Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European- based culture and the Pirahãs culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me that there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.

As a scientist, objectivity is one of my most deeply held values. If we could just try harder, I once thought, surely we could each see the world as others see it and learn to respect one anothers views more readily. But as I learned from the Pirahãs, our expectations, our culture, and

our experiences can render even perceptions of the environment nearly

incommensurable cross- culturally.

The Pirahãs say different things when they leave my hut at night on their way to bed. Sometimes they just say, “Im going.” But frequently they use an expression that, though surprising at first, has come to be one of my favorite ways of saying good night: “Dont sleep, there are snakes.” The Pirahãs say this for two reasons. First, they believe that by sleeping less they can “harden themselves,” a value they all share. Second, they know that danger is all around them in the jungle and that sleeping soundly can leave one defenseless from attack by any of the numerous predators around the village. The Pirahãs laugh and talk a good part of the night. They dont sleep much at one time. Rarely have I heard the village completely quiet at night or noticed someone sleeping for several hours straight. I have learned so much from the Pirahãs over the years. But this is perhaps my favorite lesson. Sure, life is hard and there is plenty of danger. And it might make us lose some sleep from time to time. But enjoy it.

Life goes on.

I went to the Pirahãs when I was twenty- six years old. Now I am old enough to receive senior discounts. I gave them my youth. I have contracted

malaria many times. I remember several occasions on which the Pirahãs or others threatened my life. I have carried more heavy boxes, bags, and barrels on my back through the jungle than I care to remember. But my grandchildren all know the Pirahãs. My children are who they are in part because of the Pirahãs. And I can look at some of those old men (old like me) who once threatened to kill me and recognize some of the dearest friends I have ever had—men who would now risk their lives for me.

This book is about the lessons I have learned over three decades of studying and living with the Pirahãs, a time in which I have tried my best to comprehend how they see, understand, and talk about the world and to transmit these lessons to my scientific colleagues. This journey has taken me to many places of astounding beauty and into many situations I would rather not have entered. But I am so glad that I made the journey—it has given me precious and valuable insights into the nature of life, language, and thought that could not have been learned any other way.

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. I have learned these things from the Pirahãs, and I will be grateful to them as long as I live.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

Eclecticity, October 23, 2014 (view all comments by Eclecticity)
An utterly fascinating and engagingly written account of a linguist's experiences living among an Amazon people whose language does not fit at all into Chomskyian--or any other linguistics--models. Seen as a charlatan by many linguists, Everett, now a professor of linguistics at Illinois State, describes how the experiences and rare (for an outsider) understanding of this isolated language and culture lead him to question his own scholarly training--and, eventually, the Christian faith that took him there in the first place. If you want an eye-opening book about a little-known part of the world and about current language debates, read this absorbing book.
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JaneBP, March 31, 2010 (view all comments by JaneBP)
Any reader should be aware that this is a work of linguistics, not primarily anthropology. I thought I would enjoy it more because I enjoy anthropology, but the author's original purpose in studying the language was to translate the Bible and thus convert the people he was studying. This is not an anthropological viewpoint.

The most interesting things in terms of anthropology were the author's references to his father's "cowboy culture" and how it influenced his own agressive/possessive behavior. I presume it is this cowboy culture that allowed him to make a parenthetical reference to a gang rape of a young woman in the section where he was describing how happy the Piraha people are. No further information of the rape is given, nor any reference to the subsequent happiness (or even the identity) of the raped woman.

I think you would have to get REALLY excited about linguistics to think that this is a wonderful book.
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Katherine Yuhas, January 20, 2010 (view all comments by Katherine Yuhas)
A fascinating book about the Piraha culture and the nature of language itself. Daniel Everett's narrative is engrossing and makes you long for another anthropological study as interesting as this to be published soon.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780307386120
Author:
Everett, Daniel L.
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Subject:
Anthropology - Cultural
Subject:
Linguistics
Subject:
General
Subject:
Linguistics - General
Subject:
anthropology;cultural anthropology
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Departures
Publication Date:
20091131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
BandW THROUGHOUT; 1 MAP
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
8.00x5.24x.66 in. .65 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Staff Picks
History and Social Science » Anthropology » Central and South America
History and Social Science » Anthropology » Cultural Anthropology
History and Social Science » Anthropology » General
History and Social Science » Anthropology » Linguistics
History and Social Science » Linguistics » General
Humanities » Philosophy » General

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780307386120 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Rich account of fieldwork among a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Brazil . . .Everett's experiences and findings fairly explode from these pages and will reverberate in the minds of readers." Kirkus, starred review
"Review" by , "Everett describes how he learned to speak fluent Piraha....He also explains his discoveries about the language-findings that have kicked off more than one academic brouhaha." Publishers Weekly, Signature Review
"Review" by , "Absorbing. . . . Both the Pirahas and their interpreter make splendid company, especially for readers drawn to the way language underpins how we mediate our world."
"Synopsis" by , Daniel Everett arrived among the Pirahã with his wife and three young children hoping to convert the tribe to Christianity. Everett quickly became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications. The Pirahã have no counting system, no fixed terms for color, no concept of war, and no personal property. Everett was so impressed with their peaceful way of life that he eventually lost faith in the God he'd hoped to introduce to them, and instead devoted his life to the science of linguistics. Part passionate memoir, part scientific exploration, Everett's life-changing tale is riveting look into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
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