Note: This review is by my husband Jim, who read this for a book club.
Daniel Everett is a professor of linguistics at Illinois State University who spent several years among the Pirahã Indians of Amazonian Brazil. [Pirahã is pronounced pee-da-HAN.] This book is a memoir of that time, but it is also a detailed description of the civilization and culture of the Pirahã and an analysis of their very unusual language.
The memoir aspect of the book is somewhat absorbing as we learn how the author and his family were able to cope with nearly complete isolation from western civilization. In particular, the story of a bout with malaria suffered by both his wife and his daughter is harrowing because it was so difficult to get from the Pirahã stronghold to a hospital.
More interesting is the author’s description of the worldview of the Pirahã. They are exceedingly tough and independent, but live only in the immediate present, and seldom plan ahead more than one day. They have little or no interest in modern conveniences, tools, or medicine. Also, they have no sense of history and no creation myths. They consider their tribe and their lifestyle to be superior to any other.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Pirahã life is the language they speak. Unrelated to any other extant tongue, it contains only eight consonants and three vowels, and thus is quite limited in the number of sounds it uses. Natives compensate, however, by employing a complex system of tones and stresses. In addition to talking, they can sing, hum, or whistle conversations. However, the language is believed to have no words for numbers or colors. Its grammar allows only one modifier to be used in connection with any noun or verb. Everett argues that it is impossible to construct recursive individual sentences in Pirahã. [Recursion is the linguistic operation of combining two discrete thoughts into one sentence, such as “my wife who is wearing purple crocks is walking along the beach.”] This discovery by Everett is particularly significant because it goes contrary to the theory of Noam Chomsky, the famous linguistic theorist, who argues that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and what differentiates man from other mammals.
The unusual structure of their language has also led Everett to challenge Chomsky’s concept of a universal grammar and an innate predisposition to language, i.e., a language-specific component of our biological endowment. Rather, Everett posits that language is an emergent phenomenon that arises from culture and from general cognitive properties. He even attempts to show that many Pirahã sentences are incomprehensible without a fairly thorough knowledge of their culture. [Linguists are still engaged in heated debate about the meaning of Everett’s findings.]
The final section of the book, although entitled “Conclusion,” comes as a surprise because little or no foundation has been laid for it. The author speaks first of his efforts to convert the Pirahãs to Christianity, then of his own loss of faith when he has no success in proselytizing. The Pirahãs show no interest in Christianity or in being saved because they just don’t feel “lost.” Their language contains no word for “God” or “worry.” They also have no sense of finding “truth” beyond what is immediately perceivable. Their ethos of living in the present affects every aspect of their lives; they have no interest either in thinking about the past or wondering about the future. And yet, Everett concludes, “the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”
Evaluation: This book is often quite interesting, especially in terms of the linguistic characteristics of the Pirahã and the implications for linguistic theory. I probably would have preferred to read just a magazine article on it instead of a whole book, however. [And there is such an article: “The Interpreter: Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?” by John Colapinto in The New Yorker, April 16, 2007.] The author is not a very dynamic writer, and seems to be undecided if he wants this book to be a memoir or an academic treatise.
Published by Pantheon, 2008
I would love to be able to live without worry and just live each day as it comes, but obviously couldn’t be realistic in the society that we live in. This sounds like a heavy book to read, not as far as volume, but more so for the educational aspect of it. How interesting that it is so generational and has always been like this. And with the author not being too engaging, though, I think you’re right – this might be better served as an article in a journal. Oh, and by the way – great review to the husband 🙂
Wow. There are about a dozen things in this story that blow my mind (but i would agree that perhaps a magazine article would be the way to go). As I was reading, I was saying to myself “I bet they have none of the diseases that relate to stress, and they are probably healthy and happy and live until they are 100”. But what a task, to go there and try to understand and convert these people. I guess if you are going to convert a people, you need to find one that has problems.
What a fascinating review! I admit to being curious about all the aspects of this book, from the conversion story, to the linguistics, to the issues that the author struggled with while living with the people. Although it’s not clear what this book is trying to be, it sounds as if there is a lot to cogitate on within the pages, and I really, really want to read this book now. Thank you for the very inspired review. Reading it was very interesting.
Too bad this book wasn’t well written, and it has such a great title too. I will certainly read the magazine article though. I’m fascinated by the development of language. There is even a similarity to Chinese in this language in that limitations are offset by tone, inflection, etc. Thanks for the review.
I think the topic of this book is really interesting (I took a linguistics course at university and found it really fascinating), so it’s too bad the author was somewhat lacking in the writing department. At least there is that article to read instead! 😀
This does sound like it has some potential – I wonder if a good edit would have helped. I have to admit the title gives me the heebie-jeebies.
It’s always sad when an author doesn’t really have a strong voice and doesn’t really know what he wants to put across. I still like the idea of this book and find it quite fascinating, though. I’m actually going to put it on my wishlist. 🙂
That’s too bad. I had heard of this book but hadn’t put it on my wish list because I had read mixed reviews of it on amazon. I had been waiting to check it out from the library. The linguistic aspect interests me, but it has been so many years since I got my degree that I think I’d rather read it in magazine format too. I think I’d be drawn to it more as a memoir actually than as an academic book (unless I really brushed up on my linguistic studies).
Wow…that’s a heck of a choice for a book club!
I agree that a magazine article would have been better than a full length book — better yet might have been another journalist interviewing Everett and writing the article. As you say, Everett’s not the greatest writer in the world. I was interested in what he had to say, but he didn’t say it that well.
I have to second what Softdrink wrote! I’m sure I wouldn’t qualify to join and I would’ve definitely went for a magazine article!!
This book sounds really interesting. Linguistics can be fascinating. Thanks for linking to a magazine article on it, I’m off to go read it now.
Very cool exploration of man’s communication variables. I had to laugh that efforts at a religious conversion were thwarted. Why are westerners always trying to force their beliefs on “uncivilized” people who were getting along perfectly happily to begin with? Interesting subject – thanks for the review, Jim!