By Daniel L. Everett, Vintage, November 4, 2008, 0375425020

Daniel Everett lived among the Pirahas, a people who live on the Maici river in the Amazon, for 30 years. This book is his story, which includes him starting out as missionary and becoming an atheist.

Everett is a professor of linguistics, earning his PhD as a part of his interest in Piraha (the language). The book is filled with claims about the uniqueness of the language and that it is not a “Chomskyan Language”, which apparently Chomsky doesn’t believe in any more. It was a bit of a distraction to me that Everett argued against Chomsky so long and hard in the book. It seems like a thesis, but he writes “These are my lessons”.

The book is very interesting in that it presents the Pirahas, Amazon river culture, and mission culture. It was written a bit narcissistically, but this is Everett’s life’s work so probably would be.

I didn’t like the contradictions about the language. For example, he says “There are no words for thanks, I’m sorry, and so on.” Later he says “Kohoi spoke for the men: ‘We’re sorry.’” Well, that may have been paraphrasing, but the simplicity of the language is a key point of the book, and I don’t understand why there is this obvious contradiction. If the Piraha don’t say sorry, then why say that?

Everett talks about the culture quite a bit, especially that the Piraha can’t learn counting or understand abstractions. Immediacy of Experience (here and now) is core to their culture.

But again, there was this strangeness around proving a point that is contradicted. “This taught me that Pirahas don’t import foreign knowledge or adopt foreign work habits easily[.]” Fine, but then he talks about them “fishing at night is to shine a flashlight into the water to attract fish” and “rely on imported machetes for butchering, building, making bows and arrows, digging manioc[.]” Those are adopted habits. The flashlight had to be adopted in the last 50 years or less.

If you don’t like these types of contradictions, you may not like this book. Otherwise, it gave me insight into the culture of the Amazon.

[k87] These are my lessons.

[k104] I picked my gym shorts off the floor and checked to make sure that there were no tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes, or other undesirables in them.

[k128] Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahas’ culture, could see reality so differently.

[k141] But this is perhaps my favorite lesson. Sure, life is hard and there is plenty of danger. And it might make us lose some sleep from time to time. But enjoy it. Life goes on.

[k214] The most striking thing I remember about seeing the Pirahas for the first time was how happy everyone seemed.

[k323] Piraha 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.

[k331] 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.

[k559] In reality, these conflicts are less significant than the widespread agreement among Brazilians that the Amazon should be preserved.

Perhaps the best evidence for Brazilian interest in conservation is the Brazilian agency IBAMA, the Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renovaveis (Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). IBAMA is ubiquitous in the Amazon, well equipped, with a professional staff and a genuine and keen concern for the preservation of the Amazon’s natural beauty and resources.

[k576] If you spend a night unprotected by a mosquito net on the banks of one of these rivers, as I have on the Madeira, it will be one of the longest and most miserable nights of your life, as black clouds of mosquitoes swarm around you, flying up your nostrils, into your ears, biting you through your clothes, your hammock, and even your heavy jeans, in every imaginable spot.

[k632] Since Piraha is not related to any other known living language, I came to realize that we had not been assigned to work merely with a difficult language, but with a unique language.

[k908] I had known about these boats from reading, but this was the first time I had seen one up close.

[k910] Throughout the Amazon River system, whether in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, or any other Amazonian country, a passenger boat is built pretty much the same. One begins with a massive frame for the hull, built from three- or four-inch-thick planks of a water-resistant, sturdy wood, such as itauba.

[k917] Each deck’s ceiling is about five feet, ten inches high. These passenger decks often have no walls, at least in bigger commercial passenger boats, because of the heat–only short railings like picket fences and support posts.

[k929] The crews of these boats purchase the raw jungle products from Indians like the Pirahas, the Tenharim, the Apurinas, Nadeb, and dozens of others, as well as from caboclos.

[k935] There is an inherent contradiction in the lives of these caboclo crews. In spite of their generosity and friendliness, many of them have violent backgrounds.

[k971] For two fucking hours I thought of ways to kill these people for playing soccer while my wife and daughter were dying on their boat.

[k1127] When someone gets too ill to work among the Pirahas, no matter how easily the disease might be treatable by Western medicine, there is a significant chance that the person will die. And the neighbors and family do not bring casseroles to a Piraha funeral. If your mother dies, if your child dies, if your husband dies–you still have to hunt, fish, and gather food. No one will do this for you. Life gives death no quarter. No Piraha can borrow a motorboat to take his family for help.

[k1166] The Pirahas communicated with them using gestures, a few stock Portuguese phrases that they had learned, and a number of words that both they and the traders knew from the Lingua Geral–“General Language,” also known as “Good Tongue” (Nheengatu), a language based on Portuguese and Tupinamba (a now extinct but formerly very widespread indigenous language spoken along almost the entire coastline of Brazil).

[k1279] Kohoi spoke for the men: “We’re sorry. Our heads get really bad when we drink and we do things that are bad.”

No kidding, I thought.

[k1308] “You are not a Piraha,” he declared. “You do not tell me that I cannot drink. I am a Piraha. This is the Pirahas’ jungle. This is not your jungle.” Xahoabisi’s emotions were rising a bit now.

[k1403] I knew already that their material culture is among the simplest known. They produce very few tools, almost no art, and very few artifacts. Perhaps their most outstanding tools are their large, powerful bows (over two yards in length) and arrows (two to three yards long).

[k1413] After one or two uses these baskets become dried out and fragile, and they are abandoned. Using the same skills they already demonstrated in making these disposable baskets, they could make longer-lasting baskets, simply by selecting more durable material (such as wicker). But they don’t, I concluded, because they don’t want them. This is interesting. It indicates an interest in making things as you go.

[k1424] The Pirahas can make canoes out of bark–called kagahhoi–but they rarely do, preferring to steal or trade for the sturdier dugout and board canoes made by Brazilians, called xagaoas.

[k1445] Then a few days after Simpricio left, the Pirahas asked me for another canoe. I told them that they could make their own now. They said, “Pirahas don’t make canoes” and walked away. No Piraha has ever made another xagaoa to my knowledge. This taught me that Pirahas don’t import foreign knowledge or adopt foreign work habits easily, if at all, no matter how useful one might think that the knowledge is to them. This taught me that Pirahas don’t import foreign knowledge or adopt foreign work habits easily, if at all, no matter how useful one might think that the knowledge is to them.

[k1461] Pirahas consider hunger a useful way to toughen themselves.

[k1463] How much non-Pirahas eat relative to Pirahas is made obvious by Piraha reactions to food consumption when they visit the city. Pirahas in the city for the first time are always surprised by Western eating habits, especially the custom of eating three meals a day.

[k1475] Their diet is perhaps 70 percent fish, fresh from the Maici, often mixed with farinha (which the Pirahas have learned to make over the years from contact with outsiders) and washed down with clear Maici River water.

[k1480] One method of fishing at night is to shine a flashlight into the water to attract fish and then arrow them.

[k1487] The people also rely on imported machetes for butchering, building, making bows and arrows, digging manioc out of the ground, and so on.

[k1489] Manioc, one of the most widely consumed foods in the world, is indigenous to the Amazon and is an ideal source of starch.

[k1491] Manioc contains cyanide, so consuming the raw tuber is fatal, and bugs and animals avoid it. Only humans can eat it because it requires an elaborate process of soaking, draining, and straining to get rid of most of the cyanide.

[k2058] I would come to see them as one of the most resourceful and clever groups of survivalists anywhere in the world. As I saw them in the jungle, I came to realize that the village was just their drawing room, a place to relax. And you can’t understand people just watching them at leisure. The jungle and the river are the Pirahas’ office, their workshop, their atelier, and their playground.

[k2121] Well, the Pirahas do constitute a society. Therefore, if Durkheim and other sociologists–indeed, common sense–are on the right track, then there has to be a way to keep people in line, some way to assure uniformity of behavior.

[k2125] There is no “official” coercion in Piraha society–no police, courts, or chiefs. But it exists nonetheless. The principal forms I have observed are ostracism and spirits. If someone’s behavior is abnormal in a way that bothers the majority, he or she will be ostracized by degrees.

[k2147] Pirahas rarely bathe with soap (they don’t have any), the women don’t brush their hair (they lack brushes), and the average Piraha child’s skin is encrusted with dirt, snot, and blood.

[k2236] They wanted to learn this because they knew that they did not understand money and wanted to be able to tell whether they were being cheated (or so they told us) by the river traders. After eight months of daily efforts, without ever needing to call the Pirahas to come for class (all meetings were started by them with much enthusiasm), the people concluded that they could not learn this material and classes were abandoned. Not one Piraha learned to count to ten in eight months. None learned to add 3 + 1 or even 1 + 1 (if regularly writing or saying the numeral 2 in answer to the latter is evidence of learning).Only occasionally would some get the right answer.

[k2251] In classes, we were never able to train a Piraha to draw a straight line without serious “coaching,” and they were never able to repeat the feat in subsequent trials without more coaching. Partially this was because they see the entire process as fun and enjoy the interaction, but it was also because the concept of a “correct” way to draw is profoundly foreign.

[k2514] Since abstractions that extend beyond experience could violate the cultural immediacy of experience principle, however,

[k2511] I believed that immediacy of experience might explain the disparate gaps and unusual facts about Piraha that had been accumulating in my thoughts and notebooks over the months. It would explain the lack of numerals and counting in Piraha, because these are skills that are mainly applied in generalizations beyond immediate experience. Numbers and counting are by definition abstractions, because they entail classifying objects in general terms. Since abstractions that extend beyond experience could violate the cultural immediacy of experience principle, however, these would be prohibited in the language. But although this hypothesis seemed promising, it still needed to be refined.

In the meantime, I remembered other facts that seemed to support the value of immediate experience. For example, I recalled that the Pirahas don’t store food, they don’t plan more than one day at a time, they don’t talk about the distant future or the distant past–they seem to focus on now, on their immediate experience.

[k2555] But the Pirahas lack folktales. So “everyday stories” and conversations play a vital binding role. They lack any form of fiction. And their myths lack a property common to the myths of most societies, namely, they do not involve events for which there is no living eyewitness.

[k2979] They were fascinated by me. They had heard of the white man who spoke their language, but most of them had never seen me. The children and women in particular stood openmouthed as I addressed them in Piraha.

[k3856] The universal grammar/language instinct hypothesis simply has nothing of interest to tell us about how culture and grammar interact, which now seems to be vital to any complete understanding of language.

[k3898] Many linguists and philosophers since the 1950s have characterized language almost exclusively in terms of mathematical logic. It is almost as if the fact that language has meaning and is spoken by human beings is irrelevant to the enterprise of understanding it.

[k4517] We often think we know what our interlocutor is talking about, only to discover when we examine our conversation more closely that we misunderstood a great deal of it.

[k4735] If the Pirahas were philosophers and linguists in the Western sense, they would be unlikely to develop a linguistics similar to Chomsky’s. Contrary to the Cartesian concept of creativity, Piraha cultural values limit the range of acceptable subjects and acceptable ways of talking to a narrow range within immediate experience.

At the same time, the Pirahas love to talk. One of the most common comments I hear from visitors to the Piraha

[k4780] SIL missionaries do not preach or baptize. They avoid pastorlike roles. Rather, SIL believes that the most effective way to evangelize indigenous peoples is to translate the New Testament into their language. Since SIL also believes that the Bible is literally the word of God, then, it is reasoned, the Bible should be able to speak for itself.

[k4797] Then, referring to the previous American missionaries among them, he added, “Arlo told us about Jesus. Steve told us about Jesus. But we don’t want Jesus.”

[k4802] I had gone to the Pirahas to tell them about Jesus and, in my opinion at that time, to give them an opportunity to choose purpose over pointlessness, to choose life over death, to choose joy and faith over despair and fear, to choose heaven over hell.

[k4818] So I told the Pirahas how my stepmother committed suicide and how this led me to Jesus and how my life got better after I stopped drinking and doing drugs and accepted Jesus.

[k4820] When I concluded, the Pirahas burst into laughter.

[k4822] “Why are you laughing?” I asked.

“She killed herself? Ha ha ha. How stupid. Pirahas don’t kill themselves,” they answered.

[k4843] On our furlough, I thought again of the challenge of the missionary:to convince a happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.

[k4907] From the first record of contact with the Pirahas and the Muras, a closely related people, in the eighteenth century, they had developed a reputation for “recalcitrance”–no Pirahas are known to have “converted” at any period of their history. Not that this knowledge would have dissuaded me. Like all new missionaries, I was prepared to sweep aside mere facts and believe that my faith would ultimately overcome any obstacles. But the Pirahas did not feel lost, so they didn’t feel a need to be “saved” either.

[k4944] In the end, my loss of religion and the epistemological crisis that accompanied it led to the breakup of my family–what I most wanted to avoid.

[k4952] Indeed, I decided that I lived under a delusion–the delusion of truth. God and truth are two sides of the same coin. Life and mental well-being are hindered by both, at least if the Pirahas are right. And their quality of inner life, their happiness and contentment, strongly supports their values.

[k4970] The Pirahas simply make the immediate their focus of concentration, and thereby, at a single stroke, they eliminate huge sources of worry, fear, and despair that plague so many of us in Western societies.

They have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality.

[k5040] The Pirahas show no evidence of depression, chronic fatigue, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, or other psychological ailments common in many industrialized societies.

[k5047] When I am there, with a much easier life than the Pirahas themselves have, I still find that there is plenty for me to get worked up about. The thing is, I do get worked up, but they do not.