I just gobbled down Daniel L. Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, his account of his lifework in the Amazon studying the culture and langauge of the Pirahã. 

It starts inauspiciously, with a page and a half attempting to tell English speakers how to pronounce Pirahã.  But then it gets to the good parts– the naive, ambitious American missionary dropped off in Rondônia, one of the remotest regions of the Amazon.  It’s hard to go wrong with a story like this, and Everett doesn’t disappoint: there are faux pas, threats of violence, sad stories, malaria, caimans and piranhas, tarantulas that feed on the three-inch cockroaches, lessons learned from supposed primitives, and thrilling discoveries of phonological facts.  (I hope that doesn’t sound snarky.  This is all real stuff; Everett went out and lived the life of a field linguist, and you learn exactly what that’s like.)

About a quarter of the book then attempts to explain the challenge Pirahã has posed for linguistics.  This is the most frustrating bit for the linguistically trained, because Everett has to explain everything for non-linguists, and that leave little meat if you already know your way around evidentials and Syntactic Structures.  It’s not a grammar or a linguistic paper; if you want the evidence behind his assertions it’s going to be elsewhere.

If you let your subscription to Language lapse, the oddities of Pirahã include: no numbers, no quantifiers, no conjunctions, no dedicated color terms, just eleven phonemes, and– the real kicker– no embedded constructions at all.  No relative clauses, no subordination; a reluctance, even, to have more than one adjective per sentence.  And if that weren’t enough, no rituals, no creation myths, and no sense of history.

Some of this is (as you might expect) nuanced.  E.g. there’s no quantifier like every; but Pirahã can say something like “A bigness of the men left”, which is hard to distinguish from the quantifer most.  There are words to distinguish relative quantity; they just don’t pin down to specific numbers.  Colors can be described by referring to specific objects.  And most interestingly, Everett collects a sentence that translates to “Hey, Paitá, bring back some nails.  Dan bought those very nails.  They are the same.”  This isn’t the same as relativization (“Hey, bring back the nails that Dan bought”), but it’s a way of getting across the same idea, not unlike the logical connectors in Old Skourene.  You could say that relativization is not grammaticalized in Pirahã, but can be expressed in discourse, just as we can say that person and number are not grammaticalized in the Japanese verb, but can be explicitly added.

Obviously to really investigate these claims you’d have to study Everett’s linguistic work and, if you want to challenge it, go among the canoes, candirus, and caboclos and learn Pirahã yourself.  But I have to say that I’m reassured, largely because Everett shows that he’s done his homework.  He didn’t start with these notions; indeed, he started as an orthodox Chomskyan.  He did his best to elicit sentences with relative clauses, to teach mathematics, to find creation myths.  He was worried that (say) the Pirahã were speaking more simply to him because he was a foreigner, so he recorded Pirahã speaking to each other (not hard to do, they’re basically talking all day long and most of the night).  He was his own first skeptic.  And really, he’s done the work and no one else has; people anxious to say he got it wrong are probably trying to save some favorite theory or another.

He’s also not as radical as one might fear; the only linguistic theory he really challenges is Chomsky’s.  He’s open to Sapir’s anthropological approach, to Whorf’s linguistic relativity, and to the cognitive linguistics folks.  By this time the dryness and creakiness of Chomsky’s theorizing is widely perceived; it looks too divorced from general cognition, from neurological and biological plausibility, and from cultural influences.

He does go out on a limb a bit about his idea that both Pirahã culture and language are explained by what he calls the Immediate Experience Principle– basically, he sees the Pirahã as refusing to accept anything they can’t see for themselves.  They’ll accept a friend’s testimony, but only if it’s eyewitness.  (For this reason they weren’t at all interested in Jesus, once they understood that Everett didn’t know the man personally.)  This might well be a rough and ready guide to the culture (like the culture tests), but I’m not quite convinced that it’s incompatible with, say, counting or relativization. 

He has a single chapter on how his experiences led him to abandon not only his original missionary goal but his Christian faith.  A bit part of this was realizing that the Pirahã didn’t in any way seem lost.  They’re an unusually cheerful people, generous and friendly (except when drunk), well adapted to their life and little interested in any attempts to change it. 

Ironically, though Everett abandoned belief in the supernatural, the Pirahã believe in spirits, without any threat to their empiricism.  They consider spirits an everyday occurence; if Everett couldn’t see them, well, he often couldn’t see the caimans and anacondas that were right in front of him.