Everett, Daniel. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. Random House, NY. 2008.
- The Piraha (pronounced pee-da-HAN) live along the Maici River in the Amazon Rainforest. They are known as having a language which challenges long held Chomskyan “universal grammar” principles (mainly the concept of recursion - sentences within sentences). They also uniquely seem to have no creation myths (therefore no “religion” or “ritual” as these ideas are generally accepted), no counting system, and no communal history beyond one generation.
(xvii) The Pirahas laugh and talk a good part of the night. They don’t sleep much at one time. Rarely have I heard the village completely quiet at night or noticed someone sleeping for several hours straight.
(8) The basic organization of Piraha sentences is SOV (subject object verb) - the most common ordering among the world’s languages. [“I sandwich ate,” for instance].
(11) One of the things about Piraha language that immediately fascinated me was the lack of what linguists call “phatic” communication - communication that primarily functions to maintain social and interpersonal channels, to recognize, or stroke, as some refer to it, one’s interlocutor. Expressions like hello, goodbye, how are you?, I”m sorry, you’re welcome, and thank you don’t express or elicit new information about the world so much as they maintain goodwill and mutual respect. The Piraha culture does not require this kind of communication. Piranha sentences are either requests for information (questions), assertions of new information (declarations), or commands, by and large. There are no words for thanks, I’m sorry, and so on. I have become used to this over the years and forget most of the time how surprising this can be to outsiders. Anytime someone visits the Pirahas with me, they ask how to say these things. And they stare suspiciously at me when I say that the Pirahas have no such forms of communication.
When a Piraha arrives in the village, he or she might say, “I have arrived.” But by and large, no one says anything. If you give someone something, they might say, “that’s alright,” or “It is OK,” but they use these to mean something more like ‘transaction acknowledged,” rather than “thank you.” The expression of gratitude can come later, with a reciprocal gift, or some unexpected act of kindness, such as helping you carry something. The same goes when someone has done something offensive or hurtful. They have no such words for I’m sorry. They can say, “I was bad,” or some such, but do so rarely. The way to express penitence is not by words but by actions. Even in Western societies, there is considerable variation in how much we use phatic communication. Brazilians used to tell me when I was learning Portuguese, “Americans say ‘thank you’ too much.”
(13) Pirahas start their days early, usually about five o’clock, though for a people who sleep very little during the night, it isn’t clear if it’s better to say that they start their day or simply never end it. In any case, I was usually awakened by various women of the village talking in their huts. They would begin speaking loudly to no one in particular about the day’s events. One woman would announce that so-and-so was going hunting or fishing, then say what kind of meat she wanted. Other women would echo her from other huts or shout out their own culinary preferences.
(21) The Piraha language is notoriously difficult because it lacks things that many other languages have, especially in the way that it puts sentences together. For example, the language has no comparatives, so I couldn’t find expressions like “this is big/that is bigger.” I couldn’t find color words - no simple words for red, greed, blue, and so on, only descriptive phrases, like “that is like blood” for red, or “that is not ripe yet” for green. And I couldn’t find any stories about the past. When you can’t find something, but you expect it to be there, you can waste months looking for something that isn’t there.
(23) The Amazon forest is nearly the size of the continental United States.
(67) “Are you mad at me?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, after he sipped his coffee. “The Pirahas are not angry with you.” (It is common for individual Pirahas to phrase their opinions as coming from the group, even if it is just their own opinion).”
(70) On many days, the men didn’t do anything I could see but sit around the graying embers of a fire, talking, laughing, farting, and pulling baked sweet potatoes out of the coals. Occasionally, they supplemented this routine by pulling on each other’s genitals and laughing as though they were the first earthlings to engage in something so clever. I had hoped to see villages like those that I had studied in anthropology classes, such as Yanomami villages with their open huts built around a village clearing and Ge villages arranged like a wagon wheel, with houses at the ends of the spokes. It seemed to me that Piraha villages had no organization. They were overgrown with grass, which attracted bugs and snakes. Why couldn’t they at least clear the brush and garbage out of their villages? I have seen Pirahas sleep while covered with hundreds of migrating cockroaches and I have heard them snore contentedly with tarantulas crawling over them.
(76) “Why aren’t you fishing?” I asked.
“Today we will just stay home,” someone answered.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Pirahas aren’t eating every day,” (Pirahas are hard, Americans eat a lot. Pirahas eat little.)
Pirahas consider hunger a useful way to toughen themselves. Missing a meal or two, or even going without eating for a day, is taken in stride. I have seen people dance for three days with only brief breaks, not hunting, fishing, or gathering - and without any stockpiled food.
(77) If someone catches a fish at 3am, then that is when it will be eaten. Everyone will get up to eat as soon as it is brought in.
Gathering, which is mainly the women’s job, takes perhaps twelve hours per week for a family of four, a fairly typical size among the Pirahas. Gathering and fishing together, then, takes about fifty-two hours per week, divided among father, mother, and children (and grandparents on occasion), so that no one needs to spend more than fifteen to twenty hours per week “working” - though these activities are enjoyable to the Pirahas and hardly fit any Western concept of labor.
- Stone Age Economics, the myth of subsistence for Nature Based societies
(79) Pirahas take naps (fifteen minutes to two hours at the extremes) during the day and night. There is loud talking in the village all night long. Consequently, it is often very difficult for outsiders to sleep well among the Pirahas. I believe that the Pirahas advice not to sleep because there are snakes is advice that they literally follow - sleeping too soundly in the jungle can be dangerous. The Pirahas warned me about snoring for example. “Jaguars will think a pig is nearby and come to eat you,” they told me cheerfully.
(84) The relative lack of ritual among the Pirahas is predicated by the immediacy of experience principle. This principle states that formulaic language and actions (rituals) that involve reference to non witnessed events are avoided. So a ritual where the principal character could not claim to have seen what he or she was enacting would be prohibited. Beyond this prohibitive feature, however, the idea behind the principle is that Pirahas avoid formulaic encodings of values and instead transmit values and information via actions and words that are original in composition with the person acting or speaking, that have been witnessed by this person, or that have been told to this person by a witness. So traditional oral literature and rituals have no place.
- no abstract ideas
(85) Pirahas laugh about everything. They laugh at their own misfortune: when someone’s hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when they catch no fish. They laugh when they’re full and they laugh when they’re hungry. When they’re sober, they are never demanding or rude. Since my first night among them I have been impressed with their patience, their happiness, and their kindness. This pervasive happiness is hard to explain, though I believe that the Pirahas are so confident and secure in their ability to handle anything that their environment throws at them that they can enjoy whatever comes their way. This is not at all because their lives are easy, but because they are good at what they do.
(89) The Pirahas don’t talk baby talk to their children. Children are just human beings in Piraha society; as worthy of respect as any fully grown human adult. They are not seen as in need of coddling or special protections. They are treated fairly and allowance is made for their size and relative physical weakness, but by and large, they are not considered qualitatively different from adults.
- Continuum Concept, Wandering God
- “baby talk” doesn’t seem to exist in Nature Based societies. No coddling is necessary, as tribal community and natural environment are enough for security.
(90) This style of parenting has the result of producing very tough and resilient adults who do not believe that anyone owes them anything.
(97) One afternoon I saw Paita coming down the path. He was about three years old. Paita was always filthy, reminding me of Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. He tilted his head when he looked at you, and grinned and laughed freely. His feet and legs were covered in mud, since the path was so wet. But what attracted my attention was that this little three year old was smoking a fat cigarette, hand rolled. His father no doubt had rolled it for him - strong, hard tobacco rolled in notebook paper. And Paita was wearing a dress.
As the father came along the path, not far behind Paita, I asked, laughing, “What is your son doing?” I was referring to the cigarette.
Koxoi responded, “Oh, I like to dress him in girl’s clothes.”
For Koxoi, the unusual aspect of his son’s appearance had nothing to do with smoking. Even if the Pirahas had known about the long term health effects of tobacco use, it would not have affected whether they gave it to their children. First, no Piraha smokes enough for it to present any significant health risk - they only have access to tobacco every couple of months and can never get more than about a day’s supply. Second, if an adult can take the “risk” of smoking, a child can too. Of course, the dress was evidence that children are treated somewhat differently from adults. But these differences do not include prohibitions against engaging in activities more commonly associated with adults in Western society.
Once a trader gave the tribe enough cachaca for everyone to get drunk. And that is what happened. Every man, woman, and child in the village got falling down wasted. Now, it doesn’t take much alcohol for Pirahas to get drunk. But to see six year olds staggering with slurred speech was a novel experience for me. To the Pirahas, though, everyone must share in the hardships of life, and everyone is likewise entitled to share in the enjoyable things in life.
(99) Piraha parenting involves no violence, at least in principle. But my model of parenting did. It is worth contrasting the two here because ultimately I have come to believe that the Pirahas have a healthier attitude in many ways than I did at the time. I was a young father - [my first daughter] Shannon was born was I when nineteen. And because of my immaturity and Christian parenting framework, I thought that corporeal punishment was appropriate and useful, following the biblical injunction that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. Shannon, as my oldest child, often suffered the worst of this phase of my life. In the village one day, she said something to me that I thought entitled her to a spanking. I got a switch and told her to meet me in the bedroom. She started yelling that she didn’t need a spanking. The Pirahas came quickly, as they always did when someone sounded angry.
“What are you doing, Dan” a couple of women asked.
“I’m, uh, well…” Hmm, I didn’t have an answer. What the hell was I doing?
Anyway, I felt the weight of the Bible and so I told Shannon, “OK, no spanking here. Meet me at the end of the airstrip and pick another switch along the way. I will meet you there in 5 minutes!”
As Shannon started out of the house, Pirahas asked where she was going.
“My dad is going to hit me on the airstrip,” she said, with a mix of irritation and glee, knowing what the effect of her words would be.
Piraha children and adults came running behind me when I left. I was defeated. No more spankings around the Pirahas. Piranha mores won out. Shannon was smug and delighted with her victory.
What effect does a Piraha upbringing have on a child? Piranha teenagers, like all teenagers, are giggly and can be very squarely and rude. They commented that my ass was wide. They farted close to the table as soon as we were sitting down to eat, then laughed like Jerry Lewis. Apparently the profound weirdness of teenagers is universal.
But I did not see the Piraha teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Piraha sense of productivity (good fisherman, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and other aspects of the physical world of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Piraha youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.
Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahas once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because it is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahas are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahas perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.
- anxiety of progress is non-existent in Nature Based society. there is nothing to progress to, as everything, psychologically, socially, economically, is provided.
- the gall and manipulative paternalism of “discovering” and studying other cultures from an expanding empire state.
(103) Their solution or response to infidelity can be humorous. One morning I walked over to my friend Kohoibiihiai’s home to ask him to teach me more of his language. As I approached his hut, everything looked pretty normal. His wife, Xibaihoixoi, was sitting up and he was lying down with his head in her lap.
“Hey, can you help me learn Piraha words today?” I asked
He started to raise his head to answer. Then I noticed that his wife was holding him by the hair of his head. As he tried to raise his head, she jerked his head back by the hair, picked up a stick at her side and started whacking him irregularly on the top of the head, occasionally hitting him in the face. He laughed hard, but not too hard, because she jerked his hair every time he moved.
“My wife won’t let me go anywhere,” he said, giggling.
His wife was smirking but the grin disappeared right away and she struck him harder. Some of those whacks looked pretty painful to me. Kohl wasn’t in the best position to talk, so I left and found Xahoabisi, another good language teacher.
As we walked back to my house together, I asked, “So what is going on with Kohoibiihiai? His wife is holding down his head and hitting him with a stick.”
“Oh, he was playing with another woman last night,” Xahoabisi chortled. “So this morning his woman is mad at him. He can’t go anywhere today.”
The fact that Kohoi, a young man and a fearless hunter, would lie like that all day and allow his wife to whack him at will (three hours later I revisited them and they were in the same position) was clearly partly voluntary penance. But it was partly a culturally prescribed remedy. I have since seen other men endure the same treatment.
…It is important to note that this involves no shouting or overt anger. The giggling, smirking, and laughter are all necessary components of the process, since anger is the cardinal sin among the Pirahas. Female infidelity is also fairly common. When this happens the man looks for his wife. He may say something mean or threatening to the male who cuckolded him. But violence against anyone, children or adults, is unacceptable to the Piraha.
(117) I noticed that they could use what I thought meant “two” for two small fish or one relatively larger fish, contradicting my understanding that it meant “two” and supporting my new idea of the “numbers” as references to relative volume - two small fish and one medium sized fish are roughly equal in volume, but both would be less than, and thus trigger a different “number” than a large fish. Eventually numerous published experiments were conducted by me and a series of psychologists that demonstrated conclusively that the Pirahas have no numbers at all and no counting in any form.
(118) Not one Piraha learned to count to ten in eight months. None learned to add 3 + 1 or even 1 + 1. Only occasionally would some get the right answer.
(126) Xigiai is a Piraha word meaning literally, “it is combined,” and it is used generally for “OK.” [Or it can mean] that the story is finished.
- the different unique events that make up a story are “combined” to create a cohesive story.
(127-129) I learned a new word that turned out to be the key to understanding many of the facts that were so puzzling about the Pirahas…When a canoe came around a bend in the river, whatever Pirahas happened to be around the village at the time came running out to the edge of the bank to see who it was. This just seemed like a natural curiosity t one about who might be coming to their village. But one morning as Kohoibilihiai was leaving to fish, I noticed that a group of children were giggling and staring at him as he paddled. At the precise moment that he disappeared around the bend, they all shouted in unison “Kohoi xibipiio!” (Kohoi disappeared!). This scene was repeated every time someone came or left - at least some Pirahas would comment, “he disappeared!” And the same when they returned around the bend. The disappearing and reappearing, not the identity of the person traveling, were what interested the Pirahas.
The word Xibipiio (i-bi-PEE-o) seemed to be related to a cultural concept or value that had no clear English equivalent. Of course, any English speaker can say “John disappeared,” or “Billy appeared just now,” but this is not the same. First, we use different words, hence different concepts, for appearing and disappearing. More important, we English speakers are mainly focused on the identity of the person coming or going, not the fact that he or she has just left or come into our perception.
Eventually, I realized that this term referred to what I call experiential liminality, the act of just entering or leaving perception, that is, a being on the boundaries of experience. A flickering flame is a shame that repeatedly comes and goes out of experience or perception.
- experiential liminality, the experience of “in between” is experience, “becoming” of Heraclitus, Neitszche
- like “peek a boo” with an infant/toddler, coming in and out of existence, from “exist” to “doesn’t exist” around the bend of the river is an unknown world, a non-existent reality relative to village world/life
- symptomatic of the “immediacy of experience” of the Piraha
(130) “Xaipipai is what is in your head when you sleep.”
I came to eventually understand that xaipipai is dreaming, but with a twist: it is classified as a real experience. You are an eyewitness to your dreams. Dreams are not fiction to the Pirahas. You see one way awake and another way while asleep, but both ways of seeing are real experiences. I also learned that Xisaabi [upon explaining his dream] had used musical speech to discuss his dream because it was a new experience and new experiences are often recounted with musical speech, which exploits the inherent tones of all Piraha words.
(141) Pirahas see spirits in their mind, literally. They talk to spirits, literally. Whatever anyone else might think of these claims, all Pirahas will say that they experience spirits. For this reason, Piraha spirits exemplify the immediacy of experience principle. And the myths of any other culture must also obey this constraint or there is no appropriate way to talk about them in the Piraha language.
(142) If all Piraha myths must exemplify immediacy of experience, then the scriptures of many world religions, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, and so on, could not be translated or discussed among the Pirahas, because they involve stories for which there is no living eyewitness. This is the main reason that no missionary for nearly three hundred years has had any impact on the Pirahas’ religion. The stories of the Abrahamic religions lack living eyewitnesses..
- a diffuse/connotative reality allows for “identity” to flow. there is no concrete, certain identity. (see Berman, S Diamond).
(149) Ostracization is an extreme form of punishment in the Amazon, where social cooperation is necessary for protection, for help in hunting and gathering food, and so on.
(212) The Pirahas would converse with me and then turn to one another, in my presence, to talk about me, as though I wasn’t there.
“Say Dan, could you give me some matches?” Xipoogi asked me one time with others present.
“OK, he is giving us two matches. Now I am going to ask for cloth.”
Why would they talk about me in front of my face like this, as though I couldn’t understand them? I had just demonstrated that I could understand them by answering the question about the matches. What was I missing?
Their language, in their view, emerges from their lives as Pirahas and from their relationships to other Pirahas. If I could utter appropriate responses to their questions, this was no more evidence that I spoke their language than a recorded message is to me evidence that my telephone is a native speaker of English. I was like on the bright macaws or parrots so abundant along the Maici [river]. My “speaking” was just some cure trick to some of them. It was not really speaking.
- language as not distinct from culture, which is contrast to Western ways whose impulse is to separate everything out of context.
(216) During the rest of our hunt, I noticed that directions were given either in terms of the river (upriver, downriver, to the river) or the jungle (into the jungle). The Pirahas knew where the river was (I couldn’t tell - I was thoroughly disoriented). They all seemed to orient themselves to their geography rather than to their bodies, as we do when we use “left hand” and “right hand” for directions.
I didn’t understand this. I had never found the words for “left hand” and “right hand.” The discovery of the Pirahas’ use of the river in giving directions did explain, however, why when the Pirahas visited towns with me, one of their first questions was “Where is the river?” They needed to know how to orient themselves in the world!
- geography not separate from natural features, vs. city/town life of political boundary distinction
(218) [Edward] Sapir goes so far as to claim that our view of the world is constructed by our languages, and that there is no “real world” that we can actually perceive without the filter of language telling us what we are seeing and what it means.
(237) [The immediacy of experience principle, IEP, implies] that the Piraha language does not accidentally lack recursion [sentences embedded in sentences, considered a Chomskyan “universal grammar”]. Rather, it doesn’t want it; it doesn’t allow it because of a cultural principle [IEP].
(253) But since Chomsky himself did no field research and apparently had learned more interesting things about language than any fieldworker, many students and incoming professors working under the influence of Chomsky’s assumptions understandably believed that the best way to do research might be to work deductively rather than inductively - from the institution rather than from the village, starting with an elegant theory and predetermining where facts best fit.
(259) Linguistics is not smooch a part of psychology, as most contemporary linguists believe, as part of anthropolgy, as Sapir believed (in fact, this could mean that psychology itself is part of anthropology, as Sapir also believed). Linguistics apart from anthropology and field research is like chemistry apart from chemicals and the laboratory.
(271) There was no sense of sin among the Pirahas, no need to “fix” mankind or even themselves.
(278) I have never heard a Piraha say that he or she is worried. In fact, so far as I can tell, the Pirahas have no word for worry in their language. One group of visitors to the Pirahas, psychologists from MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Science Department, commented that the Pirahas appeared to be the happiest people they had ever seen. I asked them how they could test such a statement. They replied that one way might be to measure the time that the average Piraha spends smiling and laughing and then to compare this with the number of minutes members of other societies, such as Americans, spend smiling and laughing. They suggested that the Pirahas would win hands down. In the more than twenty isolated Amazonian groups I have studied over the past thirty years, only the Pirahas manifest this unusual happiness. Many others, if not all, that I have studied are often sullen and withdrawn, torn between the desire to maintain their cultural autonomy and to acquire the goods of the outside world. The Pirahas have no such conflicts.