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

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But perhaps more important, humanity loses an example of how to live, of how to survive in the world around us. In 1977 Everett, as a linguist and Christian missionary, travelled to live with the Pirahas (which number about 300 people, spread along 250 miles of the Micai river in Brazil) to translate the Bible into their language. Everett came to the tribe as a disciple both of Christ and Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar, but gradually he realized that this tribe, the Pirahas, didn't have numerous attributes that Chomsky said should be in every grammar, such as conjunctions and recursions. The Pirahãs have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comfort of heaven or the fear of hell and in sailing toward the great abyss with a smile.

This was something that had been hypothesized by linguist Noam Chomsky, and when Everett publicized this, the finding rocked the world of philology. The key point of which was that during the six months of summer a grizzly has to take in 40,000 calories a day to build up the energy reserve that will feed it for six months of hibernation. Everett's limitations with regard to religion made him unable to understand that the Piraha really did have a religion. Everett was originally enlisted by the Summer Institute of Language to translate the New Testament into Pirahã.

Everett’s heroic efforts were vexed by the fact that no other language on Earth bore the slightest resemblance to Pirahã. What an eye-opener this book is for us civilized folks whose only imaginable way of life is the Western bourgeois life.

This seems to be deeply connected to the happiness of the Piraha people and seems to be a good lesson to takeaway. I understand the argument that Piraha lacks some features of almost all grammars and therefore the theory of a Universal grammar is incomplete. Although, as in all societies there were exceptions to the rule, this is still my impression of the Pirahas after all these years.

There is the normal speech, the hum speech, the whistle speech, the yell speech, and the musical speech. Maybe it’s just that, for them, there’s no distinction between a superstition and a rationally justified belief, because they’re not in the business of justifying their beliefs at all. This is described as a major challenge to Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, since it is recursion that allows for the formation of an infinite number of sentences. Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, is standing on the beach yelling at us, telling us he will kill us if we go to the jungle.

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