Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Life, God, Language and an Amazonian tribe

About two years ago, New Yorker had a fascinating article about a linguist, Daniel Everett, who went to an Amazonian tribe, with his wife and daughter, to convert them to Christianity. Its a long article, but if you have time, please read it - it is very well written. The article also presents Everett's struggles with his own beliefs (he ends up as an atheist) and how different facets of his life shapes his views. Now Everett has a book out, Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, detailing his experiences with the tribe and his linguistic discoveries. Here are portions from a review in Science (subscription required):
Contemplate your life as it is now, the things you hold most dear to you, family, and the beliefs and values you have adopted and hold true. What would your life become if you were to lose them all? Who might you be? These are questions that Dan Everett faced in the course of his fieldwork among the Pirahã people of the Amazonian jungle. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes offers Everett's personal account of the language and life of the tribe and, at the same time, a close-up of his life and experiences in making sense of this new world.
As a trained linguist and devoted Christian, Everett (now in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University) set out with his wife and three children to bring the word of God to the Pirahãs. Aiming to succeed where other missionaries had failed, he tried to master the famously difficult Pirahã language (for which the tribe is notorious in linguistics circles) and to break their recalcitrant rigidity toward alien faiths. In a twist of fate, Everett lost all: God, wife, and even linguistic ideology. The Pirahãs left him stripped of these but, in return, provided their own take on life.
No no - the story does not really go in the direction of any serious romantic notions of life in the tribe. Rather, it bring up the fact that the Pirahãs lack temporal organization - and pretty much live in the present (according to Everett, they also have "no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition"):
They taught him about the "immediacy of experience"--the principle he locates at the heart of the Pirahã language and culture. According to Everett, living and speaking for the moment allows the tribe's members to enjoy each day as it comes, to avoid stress and the burnouts that result from worrying about the future, and to disregard the regret and guilt of the past.

The book has two parts. The first describes everyday life within the tribe. Although lacking any temporal organization, this narrative talks in an honest and raw voice about birth, death, eating, hunting, rituals, spirits, sex, family and kinship, growing up, and community among the Pirahãs. The people and stories are intertwined with Everett's own life: as a husband fighting to save his wife and daughter from a near-fatal bout of malaria, as a linguist and fieldworker coping with first-language and first-culture biases, as a Christian coming to terms with dissipating faith, and as a foreigner in a community plotting to kill him.
And the second part is more on linguistics:
The second part focuses on the linguistic aspects of Everett's Amazonian experiences (primarily on the Pirahã language and, more generally, on the author's own ideas). The author trained within the generativist school, founded by Noam Chomsky, that has largely dominated the linguistics arena over the past 50 years. Generativists endorse the idea of an innate universal grammar and propose that language acquisition is, at least to some considerable extent, innate. Like many of the beliefs the author held when he arrived in the Amazon, generative grammar was soon questioned and discarded because it had "little enlightening to say about the Pirahã language." The "straight head," as the Pirahãs term their language, appears to lack terms for color, number, (distant) past events, and quantifiers. Everett goes so far as to claim that the language lacks recursion, the ability to put one phrase or sentence inside another (in a "matrioshkadoll effect," as eloquently put by Everett). The absence of recursion is extremely difficult to swallow--not just by Chomskyans, but by any linguist. These claims remain highly controversial and many linguists dismiss them; however, a field often benefits from the reexamination of some of its more cemented assumptions. Nonetheless, although such health checks are good for the field, they are often extremely tough on those who instigate them.
The book is fascinating. In part, that is because Everett provides a personal glimpse of a tribal people living in a remote jungle. More important, we see the world of the Pirahãs through the lens of a unique source: someone whose own world is turned upside down and who possesses an inquisitive and adventurous mind that is, at times, very much in conflict with itself.
You can also find more details about these linguistic details in the New Yorker article. I'm not a linguist, so I can comment much about it - but the presentation of these debates is highly engaging. Also see this Edge article: Recursion and human thought and why the Piraha don't have numbers and Everett's exchange with Pinker and others. Enjoy!