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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle - Daniel L. Everett As anyone who has had a conversation with me over the last week can attest to, I think this book, and especially the parts about the culture of the Piraha tribe in the Amazon rainforest is fascinating. The Piraha have frequent contact with neighboring tribes and Brazilians, traders, anthropologists, linguists on a regular basis, yet they are isolationists and somehow seem to avoid being contaminated by any hint of consumerism, ambition or outside culture in any sense. They are content with their way of life and actively resist any attempt to change it.The defining value of their culture is that the Piraha rarely, if ever speak of, think about, or make plans beyond a couple days out, and they don't reference the past outside of the living memory of their tribe, usually preferring to speak of much more immediate events. They have embraced the idea of mindfulness and living in the moment without the need for gurus, meditation or any type of conscious effort, other than their active distaste for outside culture.How's it working out for them? Well they're not exactly growing in size and they basically only survive because the Brazilian government protects their land, but apart from those minor concerns, they are quite happy. So much that, based on the frequency of smiling and laughter among the Piraha, some psychologists believe they are among the happiest people in the world.The Piraha's focus on the present has other interesting effects on their culture and language. They don't have a counting system, they don't have creation myths since they aren't interested in stories of things that happened more than two eyewitnesses removed from themselves, they maintain only a bare minimum of physical possessions and they seem to eschew the idea of accumulating even items such as tools and food they'll inevitably need to use later.Another of their unusual traits is that, because of their focus on immediacy, the Piraha do not use recursion in their sentences. To me this observation is compelling, but hardly the most gripping aspect of their culture. For linguists like Everett, this disputed fact could cause the next Kuhn-eque scientific revolution in the field of linguistics. Noam Chomsky and his adherents especially have a lot at stake since Chomsky's entire theory of human language rests on the idea of recursion.I'm not going to comment on the linguistic debate other than to say that the more controversial and polemical it is, the more entertaining it is. At the time this book was written, it was at the conflict level of reality TV. Everett repeatedly takes stabs at Chomsky and Steven Pinker and their theories and calls them out on their attempts to rebuff him. Everett is calling for a full rewrite of the rules of linguistics and in doing so, threatening a lot of careers and legacies. At the center of this massive wrangle is a small group of people for whom the 'crooked heads,' as they call foreigners, and their petty bickering are the furthest thing possible from their world of enjoying themselves and whatever they happen to be doing at any given time.The writing is decent, but stylistically it sometimes feels too casual, and the organization could stand a bit of improvement (much like this review!) but Don't Sleep, There are Snakes sure is a fun and profound read.