Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

And it’s Testimony Tuesday again! 

I met Dan Everett and his wife Keren in 2000 at  the Summer Institute of Linguistics (University of North Dakota), when his atheism was apparently still in the closet. All the missionaries on the faculty were impressive in their own right, but Dan stands out in my memory. Besides being a serious linguist, he played a mean electric guitar for our chapel services and his stories from the Amazon betrayed a mischievous streak, plus more than a hint of admiration for the Piraha people. 

A decade later, I was surprised to encounter his name in another context. You can read about Dan’s work with the Piraha here and here. And if you are interested in linguistics theory, definitely check out his book.

In Dan’s words: 
“[Bible translation] did not work out very well from the missionary perspective. In fact, the effect was that I abandoned my own faith in the face of the Pirahas’ happiness, demand for evidence that I did not have, and their respect and warmth for me. I talk about all of this in detail in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes.”


  1. I would LOVE to read this book. I've struggled so much with the concept and idea of missionaries after being raised to hero-worship them. It makes me cringe now, and feel sick inside. I love this. xo

  2. There are many different aspects of the Pirahã language compared to the English language and American culture. I find it very interesting that the Pirahã don’t have past or present tenses in their language. In our culture, we are constantly analyzing what happened in the past, re-playing what went right, or what went wrong , over and over again. Along with the future, the American culture is so fixated on hoping and dreaming that the future will be better than the present. Thinking about the future is what motivates most people to keep on going and to work harder in life so that they can attain their goals. I can’t even imagine what a challenge that must have been for Daniel Everett to crack the Pirahã language and to determine all of the language aspects like not having a future or a past tense. Daniel Everett described the Pirahã as very happy and joyful people. I think not having the past or future tense in their language could be a factor of why they are much more content with life. All they need to do is get their work done for the day and survive. It would be nice if as a westerner, surviving was the only thing that I had to worry about.
    Another aspect of the Pirahã language and culture that I found interesting was when we had our skype date with Daniel Everett was when he described their way of life and social norms.. The Pirahã think in a completely foreign way than we do. Daniel Everett states, “It’s an incredibly hard language to learn, and you almost have to think in an alien way.” They don’t have words for numbers or colors because they simply don’t need them. A shocking event that Daniel talked about during the Skype date was about the incident when Everett tried to save the very sick baby, but the Pirahã killed it to take away the pain. In our western society, we have medicine and technology so death isn’t always the first assumption to be made. The Pirahã were determined to put that baby out of its misery by killing it. It takes a strong person like Daniel Everett to be able to put aside his own morals and social norms to try to understand the Pirahã people, language, and their culture to be able to fully understand them. Some people would have seen the Pirahã as murderers of the baby, but they were only trying to help it. The Pirahã way of life is very mysterious to me and I appreciate field linguists like Daniel Everett for putting themselves out there to study dying languages like Pirahã.

  3. Thank you for posting, Megan! Sometimes I seem to spend all day rearranging tenses: converting present verbs into past ones and writing present thoughts in future tense. Even my six-year-old has a new obsession with making "schedules". How much "tension" we could eliminate!

    The story about the dying baby struck me, too. I am fascinated by how very differently various cultures interpret and respond to life situations.

    When I read Dan's book, it made me sad to realize how much will be lost when the Pirahã language dies. I feel enriched for having had the chance to learn about their community.