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don't sleep, there are snakes

14 july 2009

Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes is not like other books. It is a wonder-infused account of lives in remote places full of exotic nature and culture, so it's a little like Bruce Chatwin. It's also a thorny meditation on the nexus of language and thought, so it's like Steven Pinker. If a book reminds you simultaneously of Chatwin and Pinker, it's safe to say that bookstore stockers are going to have a hard time finding the right shelf for it.

I was more intrigued by the Pinkerish parts of Don't Sleep than by the Chatwineseque. There are exciting stories of battles with malaria or predatory reptiles, but they seem uneasily yoked to the linguistics – as if a savvy agent had told Everett that a study of syntactic recursion in the Amazonian language Pirahã might wow them at the Linguistic Society of America, but wasn't going to get anyone salivating at Random House. But gifted a writer as Everett is, there are a lot of books about culture shock in the jungle. There are fewer that challenge the prevailing assumptions of Western linguistics.

Everett has done linguistic research among the Pirahã for decades, first as a Bible-translating missionary, later as a non-theistic field linguist. He has carefully documented the Pirahã language, which is extreme in the corpus of world languages in several respects. The Pirahãs have no number terms, not even "two." Their language has only eleven phonemes. They have no words, perhaps no concepts, for "right" and "left," "all" or "every." And most ominously, for Chomskyan linguists like Pinker, Pirahã does not exhibit recursion.

Pirahã would in fact be the dream language of many students assigned to diagram sentences. "Recursion," in linguistics, is the folding of one sentence inside another. If the cat ate the rat and the rat is on the mat, we can say "The cat that ate the rat is on the mat." Pirahãs can't; they must use two sentences.

(Don't rush right out and register for Pirahã 101 if you need to take a foreign language, though: the Pirahãs have tens of thousands of verb forms, so conjugation on the final exam might be a nightmare.)

Lack of recursion is a dramatic finding, counter to the central principles of contemporary linguistics. Noam Chomsky holds that languages are infinitely generative. In English, you can always make a longer sentence. The cat that ate the rat that chewed the hat is on the mat. The cat that ate the rat that chewed the hat that sat in Charlie's flat is on the mat. In Pirahã, though, sentence length is finite. It's not that Pirahãs can't talk about new things. But they must do so one simple sentence at a time.

For Everett, the finite syntax of Pirahã is linked to the finite worldview of Pirahã culture. Pirahã expresses knowledge in only three grammatical forms: direct eyewitness experience, hearsay, or highly proximate deduction. If they didn't see the cat eat the rat, or hear a living person say that the cat did so, or notice the absence of the rat while the cat licked its chops, they just can't frame the concept, and besides, they don't care.

The Pirahã worldview made it impossible for Dan Everett to translate the Bible into Pirahã. He technically did put one of the Gospels into Pirahã sentences, but it made no sense to the eminently literal-minded Amazonians. They'd never seen Jesus; Everett never had either; no friends of Everett's had reported seeing him. At that point, the Pirahã lost interest. In the end, the Pirahã converted Everett to their more present-centered philosophy.

I'm no linguist, but I'm not sure that the lack of recursion in Pirahã is fatal to Chomskyan ideas. Chomsky's absolute (and profoundly egalitarian) belief in a universal grammar is only partially derived from formal linguistic data. Universal grammar is induced (not deduced, as Everett oversimplifyingly states) from the observation that all children learn a natural language completely and effortlessly. Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek; and young Pirahãs (as Everett notes in self-encouragement as he initially flounders in the language) easily learn Pirahã.

Nor is infinite recursion much more than a logical abstraction. True, I can keep inserting dependent clauses in my rat-on-the-mat sentence till the cats come home. But nobody except literature professors actually speaks in infinitely long sentences. Proust himself occasionally employs a full stop.

More exciting among Everett's claims is the notion that cultures are inherently different in the way they encounter the world. He questions another Chomskyan axiom: the principle of "effability," which asserts that anything you can say in one tongue, you can express in another. Can one really express certain English concepts in Pirahã, or vice versa? Not just the doings of Dan Everett or the slipperiness of snakes, but the notion of history, or the tangible presence of spirits?

Everett, Daniel L. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian jungle. New York: Pantheon, 2008.