Sunday, 21 April 2013

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (Daniel Everett)

--The blurb--
"Although Daniel Everett was a missionary, far from converting the Pirahas, they converted him. He shows the slow, meticulous steps by which he gradually mastered their language and his gradual realisation that its unusual nature closely reflected its speakers' startlingly original perceptions of the world. He describes how he began to realise that his discoveries about the Piraha language opened up a new way of understanding how language works in our minds and in our lives, and that this way was utterly at odds with Noam Chomsky's universally accepted linguistic theories."

--The review-- 
Those studying linguistics generally do it as part of a pre-meditated choice. They perhaps were good at languages at school and took an interest in this when visiting foreign countries before taking languages to an even higher level at university. However, Daniel Everett fell into this field almost accidentally via missionary work - and it is the story of this extraordinary accident that forms the interdisciplinary memoir Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

In spite of the many opportunities for sentimentality in this missionary basis, Everett is unabashedly frank: he acknowledges the errors he made in trying to impose Western values on the Piraha (pronounced Pir-ha-DAN) people and in putting his wife and children (as well as himself) into grave danger. He also avoids the temptation to make this more about himself than about the people that he meets along the Maici river - so while this is a memoir, it also forms a unique blend with social and anthropological research as well as linguistics, culture, geography and psychology.

Everett's wild yet believable anecdotes are seared onto the brain through his matter-of-fact style of storytelling, and while he could get easily carried away with technicalities of the Piraha language, he sensibly keeps up the pace. However, the story arguably doesn't go as far as it might, lacking a satisfying conclusion before proceeding to the more technical section, which is of more interest to serious linguists than to the general reader (and even the serious linguist might struggle to follow it late at night). Regardless of this, the colours, sounds and experiences of Everett's recount are indelible, and come highly recommended.

Other works by Daniel Everett
The Crucial Educational Fusion (2013)
Language: The Cultural Tool (2013)
Wisdom from Strangers (release date tba) 

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