This month we read Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Snakes: Life & Language in the Amazonian Jungle. This book is a memoir of the famed linguist and anthropologist Daniel Everett and his journey into the Pirahã tribe in the Amazonian jungle.
Normally I 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 in this book. 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.
If you would rather read the transcript, click here.
Here are some of the highlights from this month’s review…
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 Pirahã 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, Pirahã 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.
Some other ideas that I took from Everett’s language learning practice…
You should 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. Daniel Everett 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 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.
On the value of anthropology…
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… My feeling is that many of the cultures we are 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.
This 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.
On the idea of what I call, the “value trap”…
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.
The Pirahã & the immediacy of experience…
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. Perhaps in our environment, our culture is better.
But 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.