Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
Daniel L. Everett
Pantheon Books; 283 pages
Daniel Everett came to the Pirahã as a Christian missionary. Thirty years later, he left an atheist. The indigenous Brazilian tribe had no need for his Jesus, just as they had no need for numbers, colors, rituals, sound sleep, daily meals, permanent shelter, the concept of God or stories about things that happened in the past. The 350-member tribe (whose name is pronounced pee-da-HAN) is one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer cultures in the Amazon. Although they have had contact with the Western world since 1714, their customs have remained remarkably unchanged. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes is a story of language and faith along the sweeping banks of the Maici River, with a little malaria thrown in to keep things interesting.
1. On the tribe: "Pirahãs laugh about everything. They laugh at their own misfortune: when someone's hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when they catch no fish. They laugh when they're full and they laugh when they're hungry... This pervasive happiness is hard to explain, though I believe that the Pirahãs are so confident and secure in their ability to handle anything that their environment throws at them that they can enjoy whatever comes their way. This is not at all because their lives are easy, but because they are good at what they do."
2. On marriage and divorce: "To have sex with someone else's spouse is frowned upon and can be risky, but it happens. If the couple is married to each other, they will just walk off in the forest a ways to have sex. The same is true if neither member of the couple is married. If one or both members of the couple are married to someone else, however, they will usually leave the village for a few days. If they return and remain together, the old partners are thereby divorced and the new couple is married. First marriages are recognized simply by cohabitation. If they do not choose to remain together, then the cuckolded spouses may or may not choose to allow them back. Whatever happens, there is no further mention of it or complaint about it, at least not openly, once the couple has returned. However, while the lovers are absent from the village, their spouses search for them, wail, and complain loudly to everyone. Sometimes the spouses left behind asked me to take them in my motorboat to search for the missing partners, but I never did."
3. On the difficulties of religious conversion: Kóhoi said, "Ko Xoogiái, ti gi xahoaisoogabagai." (Hey Dan, I want to talk to you.) He continued, "The Pirahãs know that you left your family and your own land to come here and live with us. We know that you do this to tell us about Jesus. You want us to live like Americans. But the Pirahãs do not want to live like Americans. We like to drink. We like more than one woman. We don't want Jesus. But we like you. You can stay with us. But we don't want to hear any more about Jesus. OK?"...Had I taken the time to read about the Pirahãs before visitimg them the first time, I would have learned that missionaries had been trying to convert them for over two hundred years. From the first record of contact with the Pirahãs and the Muras, a closely related people, in the eighteenth century, they had developed a reputation for 'recalcitrance' no Pirahãs are known to have 'converted' at any period in their history."
4. On war: "There is still a sense of belonging that permeates the values of all Pirahãs. The Pirahãs see immediately that outsiders lack this quality. They see Brazilians cheat and mistreat other Brazilians. They see American parents spank their children. Most puzzling to them, they have heard that Americans fight huge battles to kill large numbers of other people and that Americans and Brazilians even kill other Americans and Brazilians."
Everett is a linguistics professor at Illinois State University, and in addition to cultural observations like the ones above, he spends a lot of time reveling in his passion for sentences and structure. The Pirahãs language contains just eight consonants and three vowels; their repetitive staccato sounds like indecipherable gibberish to just about everyone else in the world except for Everett. Until he came along, no one outside of the tribe had ever become fluent in Pirahã. A few years ago, Everett made waves in the linguistics world when he challenged Noam Chomsky's idea that "recursion" the act of combining two separate thoughts into a single sentence was a universal trait found in all world languages. The Pirahãs don't do that, he says. They would never say, "The man who went fishing is walking back to the village." Instead, the would say, "The man went fishing. He walks to the village."
The Pirahã have no word meaning "Thank you." They show gratitude by returning the favor or giving a gift. They do not say "I'm sorry" or "you're welcome" or "hello." Instead of bidding someone goodnight, they say, "Don't sleep, there are snakes" a gentle reminder that wild beasts lurk in the nearby jungle ready to slither, scurry or pounce at the first hint of an unsuspecting, defenseless snore. "Goodnight," is an empty phrase, argues Everett. At least the Pirahã saying serves a purpose.
But when the talking stops and the sentences have all been diagramed, Everett's book becomes more than just the personal journey of a man deep in the heart of godless, grammatical darkness. There is no horror for Everett or the Pirahã, just friendship, respect, and endless fascination with each other's differences.