Synopses & Reviews
A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Piraha, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Piraha in 1977 with his wife and three young children intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding: The Piraha have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he'd hoped to introduce to them.
Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Piraha, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.
"Signature Reviewed 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.)
"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 reevaluate 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
"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." Library Journal
"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." Chicago Tribune
The author skillfully offers clear analogies in explaining how the Piraha language and culture differ from ours....This engaging true adventure is enthralling throughout." Rocky Mountain News
"Everett's experiences and findings fairly explode from these pages and will reverberate in the minds of readers." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Daniel L. Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University.