A 4 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating
I was excited to read Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes because it covers two of my favorite topics, anthropology and linguistics. It is well-written, fast moving and filled with great stories about life in the Amazon jungle .
Daniel L Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University. He has written a book that is the story of his young family’s stay with the Piraha, a small group of people who live in the Amazon basin. Everett went to the jungle as a missionary. His original purpose for going was to learn the language so that he could translate the Bible. It is a strategy Christian organizations use, hoping for religious conversions. The Piraha culture is very different than that of their American visitors and Everett struggles to understand it. His visit and the work he did with this group of people changed his world view completely.
This book is also an anthropological study of life among the Piraha and the other groups that share the land along the Maici River. It tells of their daily life, their knowledge of their environment and their relations with their neighbors. His observations of their daily life are filled with a a sense of excitement and interest.
From page 100: It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of the village members. It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child. This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged as indicated by the remarks, expressions and gestures of others watching. I cannot recall having seen an adult intervene to stop another adult from violating community norms.
Most importantly \”Don\’t Sleep, There Are Snakes\”, tells of Everett\’s study of the Piraha language. He describes his struggle to understand their language, the differences he found between Piraha and other languages and his reevaluation of his own linguistic education. I enjoyed reading about his struggle trying to figure out what these people were telling him, and his analysis of his own misconceptions. His conclusions about the Piraha language run counter to the prevailing understanding of linguistics and have caused researchers to reevaluate beliefs about the relationship between language and culture.
I was fascinated by Everett’s eventual reevaluation of his own beliefs. This is a very honest book and a perfect book for those interested in a very different way of life.