Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
March 26, 2010 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Daniel Leonard Everett is a linguistics professor best known for his study of the Amazon Basin's Pirahã people and their language. "Influenced by the Pirahã's concept of truth, he slowly lost his Christian faith and became an atheist." Radio NZ hast a 90 minute interview with him. This is a shorter introduction if you prefer posted by nola (35 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
The indigenous Brazilian tribe had no need for his Jesus, just as they had no need for numbers, colors, rituals, sound sleep, daily meals, permanent shelter, the concept of God or stories about things that happened in the past.

Well to my way of thinking, no need for Jesus or God is just common sense. You don't need to go to the Amazon to come to that conclusion.

I want to know if he turned his back on numbers and colors. Now that would be a real conversion.
posted by three blind mice at 8:45 PM on March 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think maybe this post is more about his way of thinking, and the Pirahã tribe's, than yours.

"You don't need to go to the Amazon to come to that conclusion. "

He did. What is the point of your comment?

Great post.
posted by ericost at 8:54 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think you left out an extremely important detail -- he went to the Amazon as a missionary with the idea of converting the tribe. Instead, they converted him.

But great story. Thanks for the links.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:57 PM on March 26, 2010 [7 favorites]


Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese, I just love a good surprise.
posted by nola at 9:04 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's kind of like Avatar, but with parasitic worms, botflies, and lots and lots of fungus.
posted by Malor at 9:04 PM on March 26, 2010


I want to know if he turned his back on numbers and colors. Now that would be a real conversion.

You say pariah. I say Pirahã.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:04 PM on March 26, 2010


"So, what you're telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen."
posted by Dumsnill at 9:09 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mmmm, botflies.
posted by unSane at 9:09 PM on March 26, 2010


More
posted by nola at 9:22 PM on March 26, 2010


A great introduction to Everett's story is John Colapinto's 2007 article "The Interpreter," from the New Yorker.
posted by cirripede at 9:25 PM on March 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Botfly larvae are an excellent argument against the existence of a loving God.
posted by longsleeves at 10:37 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love Everett for his challenging Chomskyan linguistic theory, and because I love saying Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Whorf is a funny name to say).

This story adds to my enjoyment of Everett (who is living out many anthropologists' dream with his fieldwork).
posted by quadrilaterals at 11:01 PM on March 26, 2010


Radio New Zealand, eh?

Our own classic story of the missionary discomfited by the natives is that of Thomas Kendall. Judith Binney's The Legacy of Guilt is an excellent, sympathetic account of his growing, faith-shaking realisation that the people he was dealing with had a sophisticated spiritual practice of their own and no need to buy what he had to offer.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:04 PM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


"we had faith that god was leading us and that he was in charge, so that if it hadn't been for that faith, I don't know that I'd have been going down just as an anthropologist (if I'd have taken my family) or going down just as a linguist...but as a a missionary I felt the children would have a role to play and it was important for them to be part of what I was doing.

This is the meat, for me. He admits that faith brought him and his family into a philosophically important place, tho he renounces that faith, and he retains the idea that bringing his young family into this environment was positive despite the danger.

This is interesting all over. For evolution/faith lovers in particular.
posted by es_de_bah at 11:24 PM on March 26, 2010


You say pariah. I say Pirahã.

Alas, their name is pronounced "Piddahanc".

I read this guy's book. The deconversion story is interesting, but I see it as just a small part of his mind being completely blown by how the Pirahã see the world (indeed, it's barely included as an appendix). If you get a chance, check out the whole thing...
posted by shii at 11:26 PM on March 26, 2010


Tales of wonder and adventure, once again.

As a linguist who works in indigenous communities, I call your attention to the fact that the Americans have 99 words for "sucker."
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:54 PM on March 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


He was my Endangered Languages professor! No wonder he wasn't impressed when I told him my project on Cornish would be late.

He also had the loudest, craziest laugh. If my classmate wasn't lesbian I would have been convinced she had a crush on him - she thought he was ACE.
posted by mippy at 4:52 AM on March 27, 2010


When he taught at Manchester, he spent six months of each year over in the Amazon. I'd love to read his book now.
posted by mippy at 4:57 AM on March 27, 2010


This isn't some eminently rational creature won over to another world view by its superior utility and benefit. His credulity and ego-instability are established by his desire to be a missionary. People don't become missionaries to give something. They hope to find something. Missionaries don't leave home to change other people. They go to change themselves, to be transformed by encountering the "other". This fool got what he was looking for.
posted by Faze at 5:38 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


This fool got what he was looking for.

We are all, to a lesser or greater extent, fools. It's nice to see this doesn't preclude finding what we are looking for, even if we didn't know we were looking for it at the time.
posted by Pragmatica at 6:32 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't get it, there are 3 movies approx 10 minutes each and one about 3 minutes, that's not 90 minutes is it? Am I missing something? I'd love to hear more. The voices are very soothing.
posted by eeeeeez at 6:40 AM on March 27, 2010


You're right eeeeeez, I honestly don't know how that happened. But the four audio clips are all I can find. The 90 minutes thing a mistake on my part. Sorry.
posted by nola at 7:54 AM on March 27, 2010


I too lost my faith because of the Amazon...in my case, the book store online.
posted by Postroad at 8:04 AM on March 27, 2010


Ah yes, the reverse missionary. Classic.

What?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:52 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is very cool.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:53 AM on March 27, 2010


Faze: "People don't become missionaries to give something."

Sometimes they do it to take something.
posted by klanawa at 11:53 AM on March 27, 2010


His deconversion, or unconversion, or whatever, is the least interesting bit about the story. The New Yorker article linked above (from 2007, and I have no idea how I missed it) about the Piraha is absolutely fascinating. I remember making an FPP about them in 2005, I think, and their culture has only become more compelling with further information about how they see the world.
posted by jokeefe at 12:19 PM on March 27, 2010


Also, are there any examples of the sound of the language online that people might have found? I'd love to hear it.
posted by jokeefe at 12:23 PM on March 27, 2010



This is mentioned, among other interesting facts in an article by the economist and I know that because I read it.

http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15108609
[paid link]
posted by yoyo_nyc at 12:35 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's a recording of a Pirahã speaker.
posted by mammary16 at 1:13 PM on March 27, 2010


I'm halfway through Don't Sleep, There are Snakes. It's a great read, a fascinating story for sure... but - I worry a little bit that our knowledge of this group of people is primarily transmitted by one person (and the writings of previous missionaries). He can make a lot of grandiose claims from out-of-context bits of language and it's very hard to verify.
posted by mammary16 at 1:37 PM on March 27, 2010


Thank you for the spoken Piraha link. It sounds much less remarkable than I thought it would for some reason-- the limited palette of sounds makes it kind of hypnotically repetitive and the prosody is less dramatic than I thought it would be-- it's as sing-song as any other language, really (I mean, you can "sing" a line of any language, the stresses and emphases, etc.)
posted by jokeefe at 2:40 PM on March 27, 2010


Because it hasn't been linked yet in this post, I'm going to add the link to my own FPP from 2004 (not 2005-- where has the time gone?), because it contains some great comments and further links.
posted by jokeefe at 2:49 PM on March 27, 2010


A movie about Piranha people would be awesome.

Misreading and kidding aside, this is a very interesting story and I'm about to delve more into it.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:50 PM on March 27, 2010


Botfly larvae are an excellent argument against the existence of a loving God.

Brilliant!
posted by nathanlindstrom at 9:07 AM on March 28, 2010


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