A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirah�, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.
Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirah� 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 Pirah� 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 Pirah�, 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.
The ways language and thought intertwine have long intrigued scientists. Does language shape the way we see the world? Does the world influence the structure of language? Do we think in words? Such lofty questions pondered in many an ivory tower would go unanswered without the mostly anonymous work of field linguists. These scholars venture into isolated communities and wrestle with culture shock, broken tape recorders and dysentery--all to learn an unfamiliar language from the ground up. Their work is painstaking, and no matter how smart or how educated they are, their projects must begin with the most elementary communicative tactics--they point at a rock or a tree or a bird, and whether they are in Australia's Western Desert, the remote islands of Indonesia or the jungles of Brazil, their interlocutor will respond, "rock" or "tree" or "bird" in the native tongue. Dan Everett's life as a field linguist began when he entered a Piraha village in the Amazonian jungle in December 1977. After being greeted by a happy, chattering crowd, he walked over to a man cooking on a small fire. First, he tapped his own chest and said, "Daniel," then he pointed at the animal being cooked on the fire. "KaixihI," said the man. Everett pointed at a stick. "XiI" said the man. Everett dropped the stick and said, "I drop the xii." "XiI xi bigI kIobIi," his new friend replied, meaning "stick it ground falls." Thus began 30 years of dedication to the Piraha and their native tongue, a mystifying system of sound and rules unrelated to any other language in the world. In this fascinating and candid account of life with the Piraha, Everett describes how he learned to speak fluent Piraha (pausing occasionally to club the snakes that harassed him in his Amazonian "office"). He also explains his discoveries about the language--findings that have kicked off more than one academic brouhaha. Everett learned that Piraha does not use what are supposed to be universal aspects of grammar, an observation that runs counter to linguistic dogma about how culture, the brain and language connect. For Everett, Piraha is evidence that culture plays a crucial and previously unacknowledged role in the creation of language. Everett's life with the Piraha cost him dearly. He almost lost two family members to malaria, and his first marriage broke down after years of highly productive shared field work. But life in the Amazon taught him a great deal about human nature, too, perhaps more about his own than that of the Piraha. Everett began his linguistic work as a Christian missionary, but the Piraha were marvelously impervious to his promise of a life with Jesus. They pointed out that Everett simply had no proof for the supernatural world he described, and in the end he found himself agreeing with them. He left the church, choosing a world that more honestly integrated his goals as a scholar with the world view of his Piraha friends--one where evidence matters. (Nov. 11) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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November 10, 2008
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