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madbkwm

madbkwm

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle - Daniel L. Everett My husband picked this one up and spent quite a bit of time telling me about the Pirahas and so I felt somewhat required to read it. Overall it is a very interesting book with lots of great stories about jungle life, funny anecdotes and life lessons. As a “pop” linguistic book, it is slightly educational and very readable (and so can appeal to the masses). I am not a linguist and realize that some of my comments below may be misguided, misdirected, or just completely off the mark.

However, I do have an MS in sociology and I think that this book could have benefited from some sociological input. First off, I am not very familiar with Chomsky’s work (I have read Pinker’s Language Instinct), but I grasp the general idea of genetic (or biological) predisposition. I sort of classified Everett’s arguments here for cultural effects on language to be just as (if not more) important than genetics to be quite similar to the sociologist’s argument with the evolutionary psychologists in the whole nature vs. nurture debate. I always took the middle ground in that debate: certainly your genetics can influence your personality (if in no other way than they determine what you look like which will determine how you are treated), but your environment will also influence your personality. Throughout this book Everett takes his stance against Chomsky (political-academic struggles aside) and I get that he is taking an opposing viewpoint to the mainstream status quo. HOWEVER, can’t we pick a middle ground? Certainly it is revolutionary to say that grammar is not innate, but do we have to then jump camp and determine that it is fully culturally created? In chapter 14, Everett presents a table with six possible options for the relationship between cognition, grammar, and culture. He posits each one as a potential cause of the other, without ever proposing that the relationship might not be uni-directional. His point is to discredit the five to which he does not subscribe, but I can’t simply jump on board with his culture causes both cognition and grammar argument. Simple is good and when proposing a theory if one can say with absolute confidence that A causes B we have reason to rejoice. Unfortunately, almost never in social science do we have such simple relationships (and Everett himself points this out at times in the book, but when discussing the relationship between culture and language he seems to forget this). I was most exasperated with this discussion when Everett explained Urban’s theory. I have not read Urban’s stuff so this complaint may simply be a result of my own ignorance, but I was struck by the incompleteness of the idea that the language used in passive oral histories leads to heroes who are perceived as being more passive. I think we could argue the other way; in a culture of passive heroes, the language used to describe them would necessarily be passive. Again, even if it is not unidirectional, we can imagine a feedback loop in which cultures with some passive heroes may use such language in stories which then, in turn, may create more (and different) passive heroes.

As an aside here, one of Everett’s main arguments against Chomsky seems to be Chomsky’s insistence that every language has recursion. I think I understand recursion, but I am not sure how Everett’s example “Hey Paita, bring back some nails. Dan bought those very nails. They are the same.” cannot be understood as a form of recursion. Yes, the clauses are not nested, but if we simply put the third sentence before the second: “Bring back some nails, they are the same, Dan bought the nails” wouldn’t that fit? And doesn’t he give evidence that recursion can occur at the end (I do get why simple repetition is not recursion…yes, my dog barks furiously as well, although more at the mail carrier than people walking past) of a sentence as well as in the middle? I guess my point is why can’t Chomsky’s theory be slightly modified such that rather than recursion, the critical requirement is that all languages convey complex thoughts in linked phrases? I know that Everett makes fun of this idea when he describes the way that Chomskyites have redefined recursion: “if I can put sentences together to form a story, that is recursion.”, but isn’t there a middle ground? I would argue that the request to bring nails and the description of which ones is not a STORY, but an elaborate thought. This thought can be conveyed in one complex English sentence, but requires three Piraha sentences. What am I missing here conceptually? Why can’t the new theoretical requirement be something about conveying complex thoughts in few words regardless of whether those are in one sentence?

Certainly, I agree with a lot of Everett’s discussion on the importance of culture. I wish he had read (or at least cited) some of the social psychological work on perception; his discussion of his own inability to spot a caiman in the dark and the Pirahas’ fear of traffic are great examples of the way that culture informs our perception. However, these are not new topics. Social psychology is full of “perception is reality” and theories on how our understanding and expectations cloud our ability to grasp the objective world.

One final topic that I thought was lacking in this discussion is the work that has been done in ethnomethodology (literally “member’s methods”). Ethnomethodology is the study of the way in which group members have short hand or other ways to understand each other’s meanings and efforts without complete elucidation of their intent. Everett gives two examples that I would consider ethnomethodological: when he talks about how the a Piraha father would tell his son to shoot a fish without needing to first say “sit in a canoe for several hours quietly and then account for light refraction when you release the arrow” and when he says that Westerner’s say turn left here without specifying “first slow the car at the red light and get in the left turn lane.” We rely on this short hand because otherwise life would be completely inefficient. Studying a culture is in essence the study of ethnomethodology; in order to understand a society (especially a small fairly homogeneous society like the Pirahas) it is necessary to understand their methods. I totally agree with Everett’s analysis here, but was struck by his apparent ignorance of ethnomethodology.

Everett’s main theory about the Piraha’s language and culture is defined by the immediacy of experience (IEP). I loved that he described the Pirahas as some of the happiest and most satisfied people, frequently I have tried to achieve a more “in the moment” sense of being as I do believe this is one of the keys to happiness. It is certainly unique that the Pirahas as a society appear to have no real interest in events outside the bounds of their existence.

Everett sites IEP theory to explain why there are no creation myths or other oral history in the Piraha culture and language. However, he also describes an evening of theater in which several well known spirits appear. I get the idea that IEP requires hands on or one person removed experience for plausibility. I also can respect the idea that these people interpret dreams as reality and can create trance-like (I was thinking mediums from the Victorian era) states in which they become the spirits for the benefit of the community. But how is this not a form of oral history? Everett comments that one of the characters that appears in this semi-theatrical evening (complete with costume changes and falsetto voices) is a favorite. Clearly, the Pirahas know what to expect. The spirit is not new in any way, he is following some sort of (even if it is improvisational in part) script. From whence does this character come? How can Everett claim that this is not part of an oral tradition?

Related to this is another question that came to mind while I was reading. I understand that Pirahas don’t put much credence in hearsay. Certainly, I can tell them what I saw or maybe what my husband told me that he saw, but it will lose poignancy if I try to tell them what my sister-in-law told my husband that she saw. However (and especially in relation to these spirit/theater events), why isn’t there inter-generational discourse? For example, if my great-great-grandparent told all 3 of his kids (one of which would be my great-grandmother) something and then my great-grandmother told my grandmother (and her siblings) and my grandmother told my father (and his siblings), by the time the story got to me it would be several generations removed, but would be corroborated by not just my father, but my aunts and uncles and my grandfather and great-aunts and uncles. The original source of information (great-great-grandparent) is no longer available and verification is impossible, but the evidence could still be supported. I know that Everett did not find any evidence of an oral history such as this (with the possible exception noted above about the spirit theater), but what about other knowledge? Is there really nothing noted like “the tree by which many jaguars have been killed” or "a spot that many fish are caught"? I find it astounding that there wasn’t any specific knowledge (I’m not talking about skills like fishing and gathering, which cannot be transmitted solely through words) passed through the generations. Wow.

I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with his repeated categorization of the Pirahas as rejecting all foreign knowledge. He first mentions this with the story of the canoe-maker who he paid to come and instruct the Pirahas on how to build a canoe. After successfully building a canoe, the Pirahas refused to build one again. Later, Everett describes his attempt to teach the Pirahas number sense and their enthusiasm for, but inability to grasp, a system for counting. He also talks about how they refuse to fish with a fishing pole. He describes them as having a strong sense of identity and a rejection of anything that has not been historically part of their culture. I question if this is accurate because he also describes them as learning to plant and reap Manioc, happy to use a motor (if it fits easily into their canoe), embracing the radios and tape recorders that he demonstrates, and eager for Western medicine and cachaca. Based on Everett’s representations, I would argue that the Pirahas are comfortable accepting foreign (new) knowledge if it is easy to use and provides a noticeable (and rather immediate) benefit to their lives. These are a people who do not spend much time thinking or worrying beyond the immediate moment; they accept outsider’s technology when it is ephemeral, but they are incapable of understanding learning now for some delayed gratification. Everett does briefly mention this idea: “They have rejected in the past any device that would require change in their knowledge or their practices. If such devices cannot simply be appended to Pirahas’ traditional ways of doing things, they are rejected.” but this comment is only made in passing, while at numerous points throughout he repeats the idea that the Pirahas reject outsiders’ influence.

I also wasn’t sure that the evidence provided in the book supported his repeated comments on the Pirahas’ requirement for self reliance. Certainly, they have a much more Darwinian approach and he gives numerous examples of when they as a community allow individuals to die without assistance (the woman on the beach giving birth, the baby who is given alcohol by his father, and the rejection of medical help for individuals who are not likely to recover completely and be contributing members). However, he gives just as many examples of incidents where the community helps one another and supports each other (the father of one family who feeds another child, the hunt for an older man in the jungle, the old man who is too crippled to hunt, but who is given food by other villagers). He also cites ostracization as the highest form of punishment. I don’t think his explanation of self reliance as a necessity in the community adequately explains why they would assist one another in some circumstances and not others. How is a baby who will grow up and become a contributor to the community less valuable than a crippled old man? Why would they help one for the better of the village, but not the other? Further, he argues that the language has evolved only a few kinship terms because of the cultural value placed on the community at large. He says that “Piraha children roam about the village and are considered to be related to and partially the responsibility of everyone in the village.” Well then, how do we reconcile this with the fact that NO ONE assisted a woman giving birth who was directly asking for help? Clearly, in a matter of 2-24 hours she would have finished with the birthing and would eventually be able to participate in society again. I am not trying to place a value judgement here, I’m just not sure that a fine-knit community ("one that sleeps together stays together") is compatible with the idea that everyone is completely responsible for their own health. I think there is more here that is not really adequately explained by Everett’s theory.

Again, this is a great book and represents an amazing amount of time and energy spent in a place that I would not be comfortable spending more than 24 hours. I am duly impressed with Everett’s linguistic abilities (learning to speak and creating a writing system for Piraha's language). His writing was approachable and the stories were entertaining; I just wasn’t completely convinced by his arguments (and again this may be in part because of my own ignorance of the details of some of the theories that he mentions). I would love to “hear” commentary from any experts on any of the issues raised above.