Monday, August 23, 2010

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

I just recently finished reading Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Dan Everett; it's about the Pirahã people of the Amazon, and the years that he spent with them, originally as a missionary, but then as a linguist.

Everett has great stories to tell, and his telling of them is exciting -- moving to a tiny riverside village in the middle of the jungles of Brazil, with your family, sounds crazy. I can't imagine bringing small children into the rain forest...

His descriptions of the Pirahã culture and language are also fantastic; the Pirahã people only really want to talk about things they've experienced directly, and are largely uninterested in ideas and techniques from the outside world. It's basically not done for them to talk about things that no living Pirahã has seen. They don't appear to have a creation myth of their own, and aren't very much into creation myths that missionaries might have to offer.

And the language has all of these wild properties: most notably, it doesn't seem to feature arbitrary-depth recursion, so its modifiers don't stack, there aren't dependent clauses, and apparently the language doesn't have conjunctions at all. Also it can apparently be whistled or hummed, and it has evidentiality.

The whistle-ability and evidentiality aren't unknown among the world's languages; they just seem strange relative to most of us. The lack of recursion, though, throws into doubt a lot of what we think is inherent and unique in human language. Everett's claims have apparently caused a nontrivial amount of ink and vitriol to be spilled; he's been personally called a charlatan by Chomsky (according to wikipedia).

So, altogether: I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. Everett writes compellingly about his (and his family's) adventures trying to live in the rain forest, about the Pirahã people, about language and cognition and culture, and about his losing his faith gradually, on being confronted with a people who aren't much into abstractions or things that happened centuries ago -- and in fact don't talk about them.

5 comments:

ecooper said...

I read this too; it was so interesting!

Alex Rudnick said...

Definitely!

I'm not totally sure what to make of it, this idea that recursion might not be central to human language -- although I'm not sure what to do about it, if that's true. And I don't know how to go about deciding whether it's true or not...

But it echoes a sentiment that Martin Jansche was expressing this summer -- that it's sort of a leap of faith that we /could/ do arbitrarily nested sentences, if only we were smarter, and that a more reasonable approach is to say that, no, really a sentence with 14 embedded clauses is not in fact valid English.

(also, the idea that mathematical quantifiers are somehow central to people-semantics, I find pretty suspect...)

But again -- I don't know what to do about either of these problems. Do you? How can we express our ideas about syntax and meaning?

Alex Rudnick said...

Oh, also! You have a blog too! *subscribed!*

Brett W. Thompson said...

I found this in a box from my storage unit and remember reading it fondly. I've now lent it to my dad :)

Alex Rudnick said...

Hooray! :) I bet Dan will enjoy it.