book-reviews

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

by Daniel Everett

Rating: ★★★★

Everett has two interesting stories to tell here. The first is the story of a young missionary and his family, dropped into the middle of the Amazon to bring the Word of the Lord to the natives there. They struggle with not so much hostile as bemused natives, who see nothing sensible in the story of Jesus or the Christian faith. They face also the usual problems of life in the tropics, with one tense episode relating Everett's wife being struck down with a life-threatening illness, miles from any access to a hospital.

The second story is the story of the peculiar Piraha language and culture, the former of which, in its inherent simplicity, overturns the existing Chomskyan understanding of the universals of human language. Their language does not have a number system. They do not talk about things not directly observed. Their culture, too, is almost suicidally conservative. They show no great interest in the world outside their experience, and refuse to learn new things. Everett had a man from another tribe come to teach them how to build canoes, so they might fish better. Under his guidance, they managed to produce one, and were fairly pleased. They never again showed interest in building a canoe, and rebuffed Everett's suggestion that they should.

Either story makes reading this book worthwhile.