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Published on Jun 29, 2009
Daniel Everett on radio.author of Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
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 realization that its unusual nature closely reflected its speakers startlingly original perceptions of the world.
I went to the Pirahãs when I was twenty- six years old. Now I am old enough to receive senior discounts. I gave them my youth. I have contracted malaria many times. I remember several occasions on which the Pirahãs or others threatened my life. I have carried more heavy boxes, bags, and barrels on my back through the jungle than I care to remember. But my grandchildren all know the Pirahãs. My children are who they are in part because of the Pirahãs. And I can look at some of those old men (old like me) who once threatened to kill me and recognize some of the dearest friends I have ever had—men who would now risk their lives for me.
The Pirahã Indians of the Amazon are a very peculiar people. They number fewer than 400 and have no myths, rituals or history. Their language is unrelated to any other living tongue. It can be whistled, sung, hummed or spoken. It has no words for numbers, colours, left or right, brother or sister.
The Pirahã never sleep for more than a couple of hours and talk through much of the night. They live as hunter-gatherers in villages along 50 miles of the Maici River deep in the Amazon forest. They have plenty of contact with river traders and other outsiders but display no inclination to change their ways.
"Pirahãs laugh about everything. They laugh at their own misfortune: when someone's hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when they catch no fish. They laugh when they're full and they laugh when they're hungry... This pervasive happiness is hard to explain, though I believe that the Pirahãs are so confident and secure in their ability to handle anything that their environment throws at them that they can enjoy whatever comes their way. This is not at all because their lives are easy, but because they are good at what they do."
The Pirahã have no word meaning "Thank you." They show gratitude by returning the favor or giving a gift. They do not say "I'm sorry" or "you're welcome" or "hello." Instead of bidding someone goodnight, they say, "Don't sleep, there are snakes" — a gentle reminder that wild beasts lurk in the nearby jungle ready to slither, scurry or pounce at the first hint of an unsuspecting, defenseless snore. "Goodnight," is an empty phrase, argues Everett. At least the Pirahã saying serves a purpose.