The way we speak and identify things in our daily lives is nothing more than learned behaviour that has been passed on from our ancestors. Do you even know how colours were named and why? And what about numbers? If you did not the words behind these things would it alter the way in which you perceive your environment?
As much as this difficult to fathom, there exists a tribe of people in the Amazon jungle that live in this way. The Pirahã do not know of colours or numbers, their language is based on their surroundings and the way they live. Author and linguist Daniel Everett lived with the Pirahã for decades in order to genuinely understand their language and how it differs from ours.
In this book summary readers will discover:
- The Pirahã and their distinct language
- A life without numbers
- How we perceive the world depends on the environment we grew up in
- The languages of the world
Key lesson one: The Pirahã and their distinct language
The Pirahã are a group of hunter-gatherers that live in the Amazon along the Maici River. Their language is the last remaining dialect of the Mura language group and are monolingual, meaning that they only speak one language. There is strong evidence that their language was developed before they moved to the area they now live in including the fact that the Pirahã also use some words to describe species of monkeys that are of Portuguese origin. It is thought that they probably picked these words up from neighbouring tribes as they moved to their location.
The Pirahã are also unique in the fact that despite the hard lives they live in the Amazonian jungle, they are seemingly unphased and quite happy. Even Anthropologists have acknowledged the amount of time the Pirahã spend laughing and smiling as much higher than other cultures they have come across. This is quite something as the Pirahã do not have much contact with other cultures. Their happiness comes from their own lives and the way they perceive their surroundings.
The way in which the Pirahã communicate as well is based on their surroundings. First-hand experience and knowledge of their surroundings are integral to their language. The language is succinct and matter-of-fact without any embellishments. For example, in English, the suffix “-ful” usually creates an adjective when added to a noun, like beautiful. The Pirahã, however, use suffixes as evidentials. This means that the suffix represents how much evidence the person speaking has to back up what they are saying. It is a productive way of speaking and, once again, matter-of-fact. A simple sentence for English speakers would be ‘Your boat has a hole in it.’ If the Pirahã were to convey this, they have three possible evidentials which would take the place of complete sentences. These would be in the form of hearsay, observation and deduction.
There is also no small talk in the Pirahã language. There are no pleasantries. Instead of saying ‘thank you’ for something, the action is just reciprocated at a later stage. They do not even tell each other good night but instead say “don’t go to sleep, there are snakes,”. It is more a bit of friendly advice and a reminder as there are plenty of poisonous snakes in the Amazon.
Key lesson two: A life without numbers
What would life be without any numbers? Well, to the Pirahã, it’s pretty great. They have no concept of numbers or counting. The time between Everett’s field supply deliveries were 8 weeks. However, the Pirahã questioned him every day to find out when it would arrive and they were completely awestruck that he could correctly predict when it would arrive. He tried showing him how many days more using his fingers and even that did not work.
They have no system for counting and instead use comparative terms. For example, two fish are ‘bigger’ than one fish. The Pirahã did try to learn from Everett as they wanted to be able to handle money. Everett tried to teach them but they could not understand the concept of counts and numbers. He spent months trying to teach them during classes in the evening but they could not grasp the concept. Everett even got psychologists involved trying to establish a link between numbers and the way the Pirahã think so that they coil understand. But the answer was simply that the Pirahã did not think of their world in numbers.
The same was found with colours. The Pirahã did not perceive or name colours the way the rest of the world does. They are definitely aware of the many colours that exist, however, they do not name or sort them into colours conventionally. They once again use comparatives. Something could be ‘lighter’ or ‘like mud’.
The Pirahã live in isolation, away from the modern world and all its varying hues of colour, currencies and counts. These terms for them are not important, They have not only survived but thrived without them.
Key lesson three: How we perceive the world depends on the environment we grew up in
The Pirahã also cannot understand two-dimensional images. They are meaningless to them, Researchers once showed them images to test this theory and at first, they could identify the image. As soon as the quality of the images faded, they could not recognize the image. Even if it were placed next to the original.
This inability stems from the environment they grew up in. There is no need to identify an image in the jungle. What you see, you identify. Similarly, when Everett took a few members of the Pirahã into town, they struggled to cross the road. Why? Well, because they could not judge the speed of a vehicle as they were no familiar with vehicles. In contrast, Everett battled in the jungle as he could not perceive risk. Once he avoided a log in the river whilst in his boat only to have the log try to jump into his boat. It had been an anaconda. The second time, he almost crossed paths with a caiman. The Pirahã stopped him in time as they had noticed the animal’s eyes glowing in the darkness.
This ability of the Pirahã to survive in the jungle is completely based on the way they grew. Parents do not ‘baby’ their children. They treat them as equals. There is no change in language when they speak to the children and when they speak to other adults. This ensures that the children learn how to survive in the jungle from a very young age. Our perception of the world is shaped by the environments we grew up in. Unless we are taken out of our environment, we do not know any better.
Key lesson four: The languages of the world
The Pirahã have just one language, yet there are approximately 6499 more in the world that linguists know of. Of these, approximately 50 per cent of them have the potential to disappear in the next 50 to 100 years. Languages go extinct due to two factors. The first one being if the people who speak the language are at risk of dying out. The second factor is market forces whereby speakers of one language are forced to speak another dominant language for economic purposes. Native speakers often need to learn the dominant language in order to trade goods or move into a new area. It is not uncommon that they lose their native tongue in the process as no one else speaks it in their surroundings.
The Pirahã are at risk of the first factor as there are only 400 native speakers left. However, they do not need to learn the languages of the other neighbouring cultures as they have no interest in material goods. They do occasionally trade, which is why they wanted to learn about currency from Everett, but they do not feel the need to learn a new language. They are happy living in isolation.
One thing that needs to be understood about these fading languages is that they also carry with them the cultures of their speakers. When the language dies, so do the culture of the people. Like the Pirahã, everyone should strive to keep their languages intact which means that they should be pressurized to learn new languages just to adapt to the modern world. Forced assimilation would mean that languages and cultures would disappear over time. Instead of trying to get others to understand us, maybe we should endeavour to preserve their culture and instead learn to understand them.
The key takeaway from Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is:
In a world where communication and numeracy are seen as crucial to existence, there still exists some groups of people who do not see the importance of it. This is because they have other things which they hold in high regards, like survival and happiness. The Pirahã are a prime example of this. They hold on to their culture and language with little need for anything else. Their surroundings influence their language and have become central to their survival and interactions with others. They also have no need to learn more languages. In our journey for knowledge, we must also respect cultures like the Pirahã as they have found a way to live happily without outside influence. They are not primitive as some would think, but instead content in preserving their language and thus their culture.
How can I implement the lessons learned in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes:
Languages should not be lost. Why not trying to learn a new language instead of getting someone else to conform to a dominant language? It will strengthen your linguistic skills and the other person will appreciate having someone to speak to in their native language. It’s a win-win situation!