Book Club Questions: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977—with his wife and three young children—intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding. The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live—so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them. 

Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

Colleen and I were both pretty pleased that we picked this title as a book club book, since there was a lot going on which we both wanted to try and unpack during our discussion. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes raises a lot of questions for a Western reader, and in many different areas outside of just linguistics. Our experience of the memoir/linguistics-for-beginners story Everett is telling definitely benefitted from our ability to work together in navigating our own understanding of the concepts Everett introduced during our book club meeting.

I highly recommend this book, as it introduces many challenging concepts about language, culture, and perception for a Western audience, without being overly academic and terminology-laden. I would also recommend you read the book with the intention of discussing it with someone else, if possible, as your brain will benefit from being forced to grapple with the ideas Everett is introducing and to put your thoughts into words.

Discussion questions below the cut!

In the preface, Everett states, “These are my lessons. Someone else would no doubt have learned other lessons. Future researchers will have their own stories to tell. In the end, we just do the best we can to talk straight and clear.” In non-fiction, and especially in scientific papers, the personal point of view is often obscured or even perhaps obliterated. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, in contrast, grounds all the linguistic science we’re contemplating in Everett’s own personal experiences that caused him to reach these scientific conclusions. What advantages does this emphasis of the 1st person bring to a scientific discussion? What disadvantages do you see? Are there particular areas of the sciences that you feel are more appropriate for using this personal point of view?

When explaining how Pirahãs have a more fluid understanding of selfhood, Everett says, “So what does it mean to say that something or someone is the same this instant as they were a minute ago? What does it mean to say that I am the same person I was when I was a toddler? None of my cells are the same. Few if any of my thoughts are. To the Pirahãs, people are not the same in each phase of their lives” (Ch. 7). Consider your own life. Are there specific points at which you felt you became someone new? Or do you see your life as a steady continuum with no great interruptions? Explain your reply.

When Everett is explaining the way in which understanding culture is necessary in understanding a language, he says, “If you learn to pronounce French vowels perfectly and come to completely understand and control the meaning of every French word, can you rightly claim to speak French? Would pronunciation and knowledge of words be enough to tell you the appropriate sentence to use in a particular social setting? Would this knowledge suffice to read Voltaire in the original like a French intellectual? The answer to these questions is no. Language is not only more than the sum of its parts (words and sounds and sentences)it is by itself insufficient for full communication and understanding without knowledge of an enveloping culture” (Ch. 13). Are there realms in your life in which you are speaking a “different language,” despite using English words? What sets this “different language” apart from what your home region considers “standard English”? How or why did you learn this language in the first place?

As Everett explains the two major systems of orientation in languages, he says, “The Pirahãs lack a body-oriented system and only have the nonambiguous, externally anchored system… So the Pirahãs need to think more explicitly and consistently about their location in the world than we do. This in turn means that the Pirahãs’ language forces them to think differently about the world” (Ch. 14). Thinking over your past experiences, particularly when traveling or living in an area unfamiliar to you, have you ever felt “out of place” and unable to fully orient yourself to your new surroundings? If so, in what ways did you attempt to reorient yourself, and did these methods work? If not, why do you think that is, considering your own personal methods of self-orientation?

As Everett explains whistle speech, hum speech, and yell speech in Pirahã, he says, “These channels show how culture can influence language. If I didn’t know about the channels of discourse, I would not know the culturally appropriate way to communicate the different types of information that each of these channels is used for” (Ch. 11). Although English may not have such obvious distinctions between channels of discourse as Pirahã, consider the different mediums we use to speak English with each otheraurally, via email, via text, musically, poetically, etc. Would you consider these different “channels of discourse”? Explain your answer.

When explaining his difficulty in translating the Pirahã word xibipíío, Everett says, “Eventually, I realized that this term referred to what I call experiential liminality, the act of just entering or leaving perception… The word xibipíío therefore reinforced and gave a positive face to the pervasive Pirahã value I had been working on independently. That value seemed to be to limit most talk to what you had seen or heard from an eyewitness” (Ch. 7). Attempt to imagine your life if the only topics about which you spoke were those witnessed by you or conveyed to you by an eyewitness. In what ways is your imagination limited by our Western perspective? Is it possible to translate the Pirahã culture to a modern Western culture, or is it impossible to reconcile the Pirahã point of view with our own?

When discussing the Pirahãs’ conservative culture, Everett says, “Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you” (Ch. 6). From a Western perspective, it is easy for us to identify features of the Pirahãs’ culture that they should be eager to change, such as their lack of access to quality medical care, which in turn leads to their significantly shorter lifespans, as well as their general seclusion from other technological and scientific advances. Before reading this book, what did you feel constituted an “advanced” culture? How about now that you’ve read the book? Whether or not your answer changed, defend your point of view.

As he explains how he came to let go of his belief in both God and truth, Everett says, “From the time we are born we try to simplify the world around us. […] In specific intellectual domains we call our attempts at simplification ‘hypotheses’ and ‘theories.’ Scientists invest their careers and energies in certain attempts at simplification. […] But this type of ‘elegance theorizing’ (getting results that are ‘pretty’ rather than particularly useful) began to satisfy me less and less. […] The Pirahãs are firmly committed to the pragmatic concept of utility. They don’t believe in a heaven above us, or a hell below us, or that any abstract cause is worth dying for” (Ch. 17). Do you agree with the Pirahã and, by extension, Daniel Everett? Or do you think there is a value to “elegance theorizing” in either a religious or scientific sense? Explain your answer.

Consider the Pirahãs’ “good night” message of “don’t sleep, there are snakes.” Of course, we do not live in the Amazonian jungle, and are unlikely to encounter any of the snakes which make a guest appearance in Everett’s memoir. As we work to translate experience and point of view between cultures, however, we must often try to find common ground where there seems to be none. What would be the “snakes” in your own life? How would you translate this Pirahã expression to your own point of view, or is it even possible for you to do so?

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