Review: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, Daniel Everett

Recommended by Annie the Superfast Reader.  Don’t Sleep There are Snakes chronicles missionary/anthropologist Daniel Everett’s time with the Pirahã tribe in Brazil.  As a young linguist, Everett moved to Brazil with his family to learn the Pirahã language and translate the Bible into Pirahã, thus to spread the Good News of the Lord.  In learning the language and spending time with the tribe, he found that the Pirahã are so focused on immediacy of experience that they were completely uninterested in the Bible.  They shook his faith.

Going in, I thought this was going to be a personal memoir about Everett’s faith and how it changed as a result of living with thePirahã.  Instead it was far more focused on his learning of the Pirahã language and coming to understand their culture.  Though the writing was far from inspired, his observations of the Pirahã were interesting enough in themselves to be worth reading about.  For instance, they are highly conservative and resistant to outside influences on their culture.  They express a wish to be able to make sturdier canoes, so Everett arranges to bring someone in to show them how to make sturdier canoes.  They make a sample canoe under the instruction of the canoe guy.  They love it!  It is great!  A few days later they ask for another canoe, and when Everett says they know how to make them now, they say “Pirahã don’t make canoes,” and drop it.  Crazy, eh?  Anthropology is insane.

The last third or so of the book is focused primarily on the Pirahã language.  I am curious about linguistics! – but I don’t know enough about it (yet) that I understood all the parts of how the Pirahã language differs from other languages.  If I were wiser, or had taken linguistics classes in college, I might have understood all this better.  I wish I’d taken linguistics in college.  Why did I not do that?

Right at the very end, Everett talks briefly about his attempts to teach the Pirahã about the Christian faith.  They didn’t care about Jesus, because nobody they knew had actually spoken to him, and the Pirahã are all about lived experience.  I wanted to know how all this caused Everett’s faith to change, and in what ways – because I like to know what and why people believe – but he didn’t really go into it.  Alas!

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