Stars: Three and a half
Everett’s thirty-year examination of the language and culture of the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) peoples of the Amazon was introduced to me by my father with the explanation, “It’s about a missionary who loses his faith.” While this may have been the selling point for my father, I was instantly drawn in by the linguistic and cultural discussion that forms the narrative. The story is one of cultural immersion – it is the story of a missionary family from California and their experience in the jungle.
I initially compared Don’t Sleep to Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, but the similarities are few. Everett’s story has the added advantage of being true. He evokes the heat of the jungle, the beauty of the river and the simplicity of Pirahã life in his lovely prose. He also emphasizes the necessity of humor when living in a culture completely different from one’s own.
Two things take the book from “amazing” to “ok.” The first is that Everett is clearly a linguist – normally not a problem, but he uses this book to expound on his arguments against Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories. The narrative gets bogged down with technical terms and linguistic theory. Although these are interesting, and Everett peppers his theory with examples, at times he loses his drift. Second, despite his obvious respect for the Pirahã, parts of the narrative come off as paternalistic and elevate the Pirahã culture as a “way back to nature.”
It is very cool, however, that the Pirahã have strongly resisted “modernization,” largely because of the sense of superiority in their way of life and their language. Everett’s argument is that their culture and language are intertwined – one does not create the other as many linguistic theories suppose. However, because of their sense of cultural superiority, Everett’s mission – to translate the Bible into Pirahã and tell the people about Jesus. Other aspects of their culture, such as a need for direct observation, also made his task a challenge.
Overall, the book is an excellent exploration of a unique culture and a discussion of the challenges of immersing oneself in a completely different environment. Certainly, Everett’s linguistic contributions will have a lasting impact on the field. I recommend the book to language buffs and to anyone interested in immersing themselves in another culture.