Hello and welcome to the October edition of my bookclub. This month we read Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Snakes: Life & Language in the Amazonian Jungle. This is a very interesting book, it’s a memoir of the famed linguist and anthropologist Daniel Everett and his journey into the Piraha tribe in the Amazonian jungle.
I think this is a very interesting book for me in part because Daniel Everett is a very accomplished linguist and language learner. He has to go into this tribe where people don’t speak any language he has in common with and learn the language and as it turns out it’s one of the most and perhaps difficult to learn languages on earth. There’s only been a handful of people who have learned it to any extent who are outside of the tribe themselves and he is one of the few people who speaks it’s fluently who is not from that tribe.
There’s also I think a story here about the differences in cultures. Very often we see our lives and our world within the strata of our own cultures. So we have a hard time really stepping outside of that and seeing well, how can things be different?
I found this book interesting because the Piraha have such a different culture from the modern, Western ones that we tend to live in, these days. I found his exploration of that culture and the implications of those ideas to open up my own mind to how many ways there are things I take for granted. I’m sure that Daniel Everett himself experiences that a thousand times as deep in his own experiences living with these people.
The final thing I think that’s interesting about this book is the culture or ideas in academia. Mainly that his relationship with the Piraha, his discovery of some unusual features of their culture and language put him in stark opposition to some of the linguistic community which to this day has resulted in some bitter feuds.
So you can see in this book not only an anthropological survey of distant and perhaps exotic culture but also one that exists in our own world, that of academia and that of, war of ideas.
In this brief recording, it’s going to be cut into two parts.
I’m going to start by summarizing the book so if you didn’t get a chance to read it you’ll get brief overviews so you can understand what we’re talking about. Then I’m going to talk about what I feel are the big ideas of the book.
Normally I would invite a guest to discuss this topic but this time I’m going to try something a little different and just share with you what I thought the big ideas were myself. Obviously I’m looking for feedback on this type of format. Do you like it? Would you prefer having a guest? Let me know what you think.
So let’s start with the summary of the book. So it starts off with him being a Christian Missionary and he works with a linguistics institute and basically their main method of missionary work is to translate the bible into that language, the indigenous language of which, he is trying to learn.
So his main goal at the start is to learn linguistics with the practical application of eventually getting a translating version of the bible which this particular branch of missionaries feel is the best vehicle for conversion so if they can translate the bible basically it will convert itself.
So his first goal is to go there and learn the language, so it’s a long term goal, but he needs to learn the language. His first inroads into this culture, he realizes, how different they are and how difficult perhaps his mission is going to be. This is a culture that has basically resisted westernization, conversion to Catholicism, conversion to Christianity, for hundreds of years. So it’s definitely an interesting situation because he’s going into this well aware of how difficult it is.
He actually goes with his wife and children and even from the beginning there’s difficulties. His wife and his daughter nearly die from malaria and there’s a very harrowing chapter where he’s trying to take them to a medical center and he’s not only dealing with the nonchalance of the Piraha but many of the Brazilians who live in the area are also somewhat indifferent to his plight which is causing him a lot of problems and he later learns that part of the reason he’s experiencing this is that it’s just an every day part of life for these people. These people live very hard lives and many of them are dying of illness quite frequently so they tend to accept their fate with a certain stoicism that perhaps he really had to experience the culture better to learn about.
Later he gets into a dangerous where some of the Piraha tribes members after having some alcohol consider killing him even being provoked by some riverboat merchants who suggest you know if you get rid of this outsider maybe we can do some business together.
I think this is also a kind of a real window Daniel Everett’s compassion for this people because obviously if someone tried to kill me and were taking about it nonchalantly I don’t think I would be so quick to forgive them. Some of the people who had threatened him are now his best friends and this really shows his depth of compassion and also how willing he was to go in and learn the culture and these people even though sometimes when making missteps culturally had really dire consequences.
So eventually over the years he does learn their language which is very difficult and it’s something few outsiders have done and developed a real deep bond with this people. He really understands them and sees how they see the world. One of the things that I found interesting that his attempts at conversion are ultimately a failure.
He keeps trying to introduce them to Christianity and suggests why it’s important and it’s not as if they are persuaded, it’s that they aren’t persuaded at all. They think his whole religion is ridiculous and they find his find reasons for believing it ridiculous and eventually he comes to a very strong—what he calls the cultural principle of these people—the immediacy of experience principle.
Basically in his view, the reason that conversion efforts have failed and the reason for some of the unique linguistics of these people is that they have a real cultural priority on things that are immediately accessible either through immediate experience or someone’s first hand knowledge meaning that it’s coming from something they personally experienced and they are now telling you about it.
In other words, there’s no mythology in this culture. There’s no creation myths, no origin stories, not history, no “eons ago our people came from here and did this and that”. There’s also no real possibility of conversion to christianity because those all depend on stories that Daniel had not personally witnessed, things that he had read about only. So they simply wouldn’t take him on his word for it.
This is a very interesting cultural property. He says that it permeates so much of their life. for instance, the Piraha often don’t keep many tools or keep things that last for a long time because they’re not really that concerned with maintaining things for the future, everything is connected with the immediate moment which of course in the world in which we live which is highly abstract, it involves dealing with things like money and government institutions and this is certainly a very alien way of viewing the world.
This shouldn’t imply that the Piraha are perfect scientists or perfectly attached to everything that is immediately visible. They do seem to have many superstitions that we cannot really justify with our empirical mindset but again this often comes from a first hand perspective so most of the people in the tribe can recount seeing spirits directly or interacting with them in some way. So for them the supernatural and mythological are not stories that are passed down but components of their direct experience.
So this uniqueness of their culture which results in some perhaps unique features of their language in particular throughout his study, Daniel believes that the Piraha language, in particular its grammar, may be unique in the world lacking what are called embedded clauses. So an embedded clause is basically a partial sentences which fits inside a sentence so it’s part of a bigger idea and its part of a bigger idea call recursion.
So an example of that could be, you could say that man is tall, you could say I gave him the hat, you could say also, I gave the tall man the hat. In this sense I’m taking the two ideas and imbedding on in the other. According to Everett this is not how the Piraha language works. You must say things in sequence rather than embedding. This may seem like a bit of a trivial observation and in some ways perhaps it is. It’s not perhaps the important revelation it seems to be.
However this particular feature attacked an idea in Chomskian Linguistics—this is Noam Chomsky, one of the founders of modern linguistics. His idea was that there’s this universal grammar that underlies all languages and one of those core ideas in some formulations was recursion so the idea that there’s a language that lacks this feature seemed to be a disproof of this hypothesis. Interestingly this debate kind of flew into a flurry and now it’s sort of resolved with both sides saying maybe the point is that is doesn’t matter.
I’m not sure if there’s a conclusion to be drawn as to whether this refutes Chomsky linguistics and I’m not a linguist I won’t pretend to weigh in on this debate with any authority but I do think it was an interesting section of the book.
Now this particular facet, this linguistic battle actually led to a series of conflicts in his life that basically because of this sort of strong charge this was setting him, Daniel Everett, in opposition to a lot of the orthodox linguistics. People were attacking him and saying that he was a charlatan that he had scientific malpractice and even that he was a racist and that his views of their language resulted in having an particularly racist ideology. I think if you read this book and you see the respect that he has for these people, that last charge seems a little harder to sink in.
However it is something that has had some weight because of his previous missionary past, even though he is no longer a missionary, that has also prevented him from the being able to continue work with the Piraha. The Brazilian government has prevented him from going to see them. Currently as it stands, to the best of my understanding, he is cut off from these people that he was studying because perhaps of the linguistic feud he had in academia.
One of the things I think most profound about the book is that he went to the Piraha originally to convert them to Christianity and he ended up being converted himself. That their own cultural outlook converted him to essentially becoming an atheist and he gave up his religion which had some pretty dramatic consequences including the break up of his family which was something he was trying to avoid.
So we can look at Daniel Everett’s life in particular his journey with the Piraha through multiple lenses. That’s something that I want to talk about right now. I think sometimes reading a book like this, particularly where it’s a lot of stories and implications for someone who wants to think about how this could improve their lives, maybe it’s not always so clear. But I want to talk about some of those ideas now.
The first idea I want to talk about is language learning. I think anyone who wants to learn a language can learn a lot from Daniel Everett’s case. Clearly learning the Piraha is an incredible accomplishment in language learning; it’s something that has only been accomplished by a few people and it’s fraught with many difficulties.
There’s no language in common, you don’t have the ability to just pick up a book, you know, Piraha 101, and just read through it. There’s the difficulties of living in the jungle and having to deal with cultural differences. Perhaps even situations where the people who are trying to teach you are not being as helpful or straightforward as you’d like.
I for one, am interested in learning languages, as I’ve done in my own projects. I think learning from Daniel Everett’s case is really what would be the extreme of that language learning philosophy and what could we learn from it?
In particular I feel as though I teased out a few lessons in language learning in his story. I feel as though his approach is pragmatic as opposed to dogmatic which is interesting because of his background in what’s called mono-lingual fieldwork, this method of learning the language does have a certain of orthodoxy to it it’s based on the idea that one should learn the indigenous language before learning the colonial language so for instance learning the indigenous language in Mexico before learning Spanish.
It’s based on the idea that one should not consult translation and one should work directly 100% in the language which Daniel Everett himself resists. He says “if I have the ability to look through materials that might provide hints, I go for it.”
I really appreciated his approach because it was not based on this idea of a compelling theory that everything has to fit within this framework rather it was let’s figure out what works and use every resource at our disposal and that’s something that I really resonated with and I feel like it’s a useful idea to hold up to.
Some other ideas that I took from his language learning practice: be immersed in the culture you’re learning from. So clearly, it’s not enough to just study in this abstract and removed place in the culture. He is living with these people and interacting with them and very often discovering that the language and the culture are not so separate.
Another idea is to be unafraid to fail and have a sense of humor and this is something that that I think it comes across very strongly in a video I saw of him practicing this mono-lingual fieldwork where he basically shows his fearlessness at trying out ideas, at pronouncing things wrong, making mistakes, and often he recounts stories where people will for instance teach him a word in a wrong way so that it’s funny for them or basically they will deny him access perhaps to certain sets of speakers so he isn’t able to get the explanation that he would like to have.
So I think this basic fearlessness and having a sense of humor in yourself and not taking it too seriously, you know, hey I’m going to make mistakes for years and years and years until I get to a level where I’m really proficient just really epitomizes the whole aspect towards languages that I think successful language learners have. They really embrace that ability to make mistakes.
Finally, you can see one of his major methods, particularly in this case because there’s not a lot of established grammar and idea about what is correct Piraha, is that he is making hypotheses about how the language works and then he’s testing them with actual people. So he’s working that to inform his understanding of not only their grammar but their pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. It’s a bit of an extreme case but I myself have found this with learning language that you can often get stuck in the idea of thinking of things that they have to be the way your native language is and getting frustrated or trying to force them to be like that when they’re not.
I think you need to open up to the idea that not only can languages differ in the way that you might not expect but they can differ in the way you can’t expect. So it’s ways that you are maybe no expecting and so you really have to have this open mind that not only can you be wrong but your whole structure of how these things are set up is wrong. The only way to go through it is to continue to test and have experiments.
So this is the idea I learned about from language learning. The second idea I want to talk about is the value of anthropology. Here we see a real anthropological insight into how the Piraha culture is set up. Obviously reading a book like this is grossly inferior to actually experiencing it but given that most of us are not going to have the ability to go to the far outer reaches of the Amazonian jungle and live with a somewhat hostile or indifferent tribe of people, who, you know, that’s just not an option for most people. Most people don’t even have the ability to travel to another modern country for too, too long.
Therefore I think this book can fill in a gap because even though you don’t have the same richness or depth as you would with, let’s say, in an experience of living in another country or another city in different language(s) you also have the benefit that this is a very different culture so you can see kind of the extremes.
My feeling is that many of the cultures we in today, whether it’s Canada where I live, or China or Europe or Australia or Brazil, they are different obviously, but there’s so many cross-minglings, so many mixtures of ideas and theories and words and even just the idea that we’re both living in sort of modern industrialized societies, all of these things create a situation where cultures are much more homogenized than they would otherwise be.
So it can lead to the impression that there’s certain human universals which perhaps they are actually contingent facts that are not actually parts of our deep, inherent nature but parts of how cultures have adapted to our shared environment or the shared challenges of living in cities, having agriculture and those sorts of things.
I think there’s an intellectual component to reading books like this and being exposed to perhaps different ways of living and different types of cultures even they are quite different from our own. But I think there’s also a benefit from seeing alternative value systems.
One of the things I found in my own personal development is that you can often get into what I call a value trap. A value trap is where your own values, because they’re invisible and because you cannot reflect on them, lead you into situations where there’s contradictions. Where there are conflicts and paradoxes and situations where you believe one thing but you also believe another thing and those two things are incompatible and they create friction in a particular context and you are unable to resolve them.
So I think there’s definitely a value to holding values, I wouldn’t say that we should all become relativists and that nothing matters but I do think there’s a benefit in being able to see one’s own values.
So even if you believe that they way you live is the right way to live I think it’s useful to see that as a system of values, as a way of thinking about the world. If it just strikes you as, “this is the only way to live” or “this is the only obvious thing to pursue” then you get stuck in these value traps. Like a fish in water you can not realize that you’re within this membrane of a culture.
One of the things that really struck me in reading this book about the Piraha is their immediacy of experience principle and this is so contrary to how basically all of us live, that we all live very detached from our immediate experience. We accept authority, we accept stories and truths that we have not witnessed nor has anyone telling us witnessed.
We accept abstract ideas like money and mathematics and all these principles and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Our own culture to our society that same way the perhaps the Piraha has adapted to their own environment. Perhaps in our environment, our culture is better.
The idea isn’t that one culture is better than the other but just to show that so many of these things that we take for granted as the only possible way of viewing the world, the only possible way of viewing our life, those might just be made up. They might be something that really, there are multiple ways of looking at something.
So one of the ideas that I found very interesting is that, throughout history there’s this idea that human beings are tied to by our dependency on myths, creation myths, our histories, our religion, sciences, philosophies, all of these narratives and historical structures.
Indeed, one of the books we’ve covered recently was Sapiens by Yuval Harari makes this essential argument that what is distinctly human is our ability to make myths, to invent things that are not really there as a way of binding our social behavior.
While the Piraha in some ways have this mythological structure, this immediacy of experience principle puts pretty sharp limits on what types of abstract structures you can have because if you can only have the abstract structures that you have personally experienced or the person you’re talking to has personally experienced, that rules out the idea like creationist myths and big religions, big ideas that don’t actually interact with our current understanding of words. It removes of the abstract ideas and theorizations.
Now my own feelings about the Piraha culture are mixed. I don’t really feel that after reading this book that I felt they were this perfect, zen-like culture that has none of the problems of modern society. I think that it’s clear that there’s both advantages and disadvantages, that they have negatives and positives, they have happy moments and sad moments, they have all the ranges of human experiences that we have here, but I think that one of the real benefits of seeing it is to see outside that value trap so that learning about another culture is in a certain way, learning about your own culture. If you don’t see how things can be different you can’t really see what it is that you do you.
So I think that reading books like this and traveling and immersing in other cultures and learning languages can be such an important foundation for self-improvement because it is a way of looking beyond oneself. If you don’t have this understanding of difference, it’s really impossible to detach your thinking and say well how do I actually do this, how do I actually think about this?
The value of anthropology is there; it’s deep and it’s not often at the surface. It’s not always, well, here’s a list of five tips that you can apply this towards so I appreciate everyone who decided to push their way through this book. There’s a lot of value but probably not the value that you’re going to get immediately after reading this book it’s probably going to be months or years down the road after reading this book where you’re thinking about what is the essential nature of yourself and your fellow human beings.
The third idea I want to talk about very briefly before we end this discussion for this month’s book is, what is the relationship between language and culture?
I know that in the book it’s presented as perhaps somewhat esoteric or a detail-driven argument between does every language recursion or does almost every language have recursion might seem like a linguistic issue that only troubles a few experts but I think that this book also points to the idea that we have language and we have culture. What is is the relationship between the two? You can see in linguistics all sorts of theories on this spectrum of the relationship being suggested.
So, one of the theories is that there’s no relationship. That the sounds and syntax of a language are purely arbitrary conventions, they just came out by chance and they say nothing of the culture. So for instance, the fact that Mandarin Chinese has tones and English does not, is again just coincidence. There’s no deeper truth to why Mandarin has tone and why English doesn’t, that’s just a fact about it.
The alternative view is that the structures of the language have a positive causal impact on culture. So for instance, if your language is a certain way that will result in your culture being a certain way. It’s often presented on the idea that perhaps a culture that does not have a word for blue and green, that they are the same word, they just have a work “grue” that’s for blue and green, that they don’t actually see those colors as being different. That they are the same color to them, and they’re not able to learn that. Or if you have more words or terms for snow, that you can actually see those as being distinct things whereas I see them as being the same.
Now I am not really a big fan of this hypothesis but I think Everett provides a compelling account for an alternative direction namely that there might be some kind of synergy between language and culture that culture can influence the syntax and phenology of a language. In particular he suggests this immediacy of experience principle might suggest why the Piraha don’t have recursion because recursion depends on detachment from experience of which they don’t have.
Now I’m not sure whether this is necessarily the case if the Piraha don’t have recursion it’s not necessarily a validation of this principle. But I think it is something interesting to think about. There’s probably some truth for the middle ground; that our language and culture maybe both influence each other. Maybe they form these synergies where the culture maybe causes to the language either in adding new vocabulary as we often do when we discover new technology or come up with new ideas or we’re introduced to new people and we have to interact with them.
Or it could also come in the other direction where the particulars of how our language is set up maybe in the end would influence how we conduct things. Now I know it’s an issue of a written language as opposed to a purely spoken language and I’m sure there’s examples of that as well but in Mandarin Chinese that is definitely the case where you can see quite a bit of influence from the fact that they have a peculiar and ornate writing system influencing the spoken language. That in many cases, how the spoken language has evolved say in comparison to say English is different because of script.
Now, what is the point of language in culture? I think it does make a case for what is the relationship between language learning and cultural immersion? If the two are quite tightly intertwined perhaps it’s not really possible to learn a language without also learning a culture.
If it’s the case where they are completely separate maybe it’s the case where you can consider learning the culture without learning the language. I think this debate is not something I can resolve here nor can I say what is the more correct opinion just by looking at it. But reading this book, I think, provides some interesting insights to see what should be the way you’re thinking about this.
So, just to summarize, I think the big takeaways from this book are one, language learning through immersion, how did he immerse himself, how did he get through the process of learning one of the most difficult languages in the world? That alone I think is worth reading the book.
The second is the value of anthropology. The value of studying other cultures and seeing how other cultures can possibly be. I think the main value here beyond just intellectual curiosity is that it really allows you to provide a mirror up to yourself to show that there maybe is an alternative way of doing things.
Now it doesn’t mean that you have to suggest the alternative way of doing things is right or even best suited for your situation but being away of your values is quite important if you want to be able to change them or escape them or work around them in situations where they’re not really helping you.
Finally, what’s the relationship between language and culture? I think this book raises more questions than it answers but at the same time I think it provides a lot of interesting food for thought on the question of language and culture.
So I wanted to thank you for listening to this. again this is a new format for me, I’m trying out an experiment where I’m just recording a longer form summary discussion of the book myself as opposed to inviting a guest for conversation.
Please let me know what you think and if you’d like me to continue it this way or have guests, or, just really anything about the book club. Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book more with you there, thanks.