The Fascinating Language Of The Pirahã People: How It Shapes And Is Shaped By Their Worldview
In “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes”, author Daniel Everett takes us on a journey through the Amazonian jungle with the Pirahã people.
Here, you can learn how to see and appreciate the world from an entirely new perspective.
The Pirahã don’t classify colors like we do in our Western society, or use numbers to interpret their surroundings.
Instead, they rely on phrases such as “don’t sleep there are snakes” to convey the same things.
Similarly, they also use specialized word endings to indicate evidence behind their statements – something that we Westerners don’t typically do.
It’s this unique language of the Pirahã that shapes and is shaped by their perspectives of the world around them.
By exploring this language in detail, readers can gain invaluable insight into another culture and broaden their understanding of different societies and ways or life.
Thus, it is important that endangered languages like Pirahã should be preserved and studied for future generations.
The Pirahã Show Us That Having A Different Worldview Can Lead To Unconventional Happiness
The Pirahã are a unique people in many ways, and language is one of them.
They are a hunter-gatherer tribe that lives in the Amazonian jungle in northwestern Brazil, and they speak a language that is completely unrelated to any other surviving language.
This ancient dialect known as Pirahã is the last remaining form of the Mura language group which means it’s likely been around since their ancestors first migrated to the area centuries ago.
It’s not an easy life living in such an unstable climate, but that doesn’t stop them from always having smiles on their faces.
These people don’t just survive but also thrive, believing that everyone should make the most of life and enjoy every moment no matter how harsh circumstances may be.
That’s why when it comes time for bed they say goodnight with “don’t sleep, there are snakes.” This simple phrase conveys both the reality of life along the Maici River and its general outlook on facing difficulties head-on.
The Astonishing Difference Of The Pirahã: No Numbers, No Colors, But A Culture Thriving In Its Own Way
In “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” by Daniel Everett, the Pirahã people’s use of counting is explored and explained.
The Pirahã are a native Amazonian tribe that the author lived with, and he found that they were completely unable to use numbers or any form of counting as we know it.
Instead of counting or using numbers, the Pirahã rely on comparative terms such as ‘bigger’, ‘smaller’ and other descriptions to refer to relative quantities.
As an example, two fish would be referred to as ‘bigger’ than one fish; one large fish would be refered to as ‘bigger’ than a minnow.
Even when attempting to indicate a quantity using his fingers (i.e., 1+3), no one in the tribe could grasp the concept of numeracy after months of tutorial classes.
The lack of understanding is further evidenced by their lack of colour names.
To them something is simply described as “darker” or “like blood”.
Though not colour blind per se, they don’t divide ringtones into more subtle nuances like we do with our paint swatches – teal, tan or taupe – it isn’t in their mindset to do so.
It’s fascinating that despite living for thousands of years along side us and in more recent times having contact with traders on the Macai River, the Pirahã still haven’t developed a system for recognizing numbers in anyway similar to ours and color names beyond what can generally be seen with sight alone.
The Unique Nature Of The Pirahã Language – Suffixes And Phatic Communication
The Pirahã language is as distinctive as the people who speak it.
Their matter-of-fact approach to the world and their reliance on first-hand experiences are reflected in the fundamentals of their language.
For example, they use suffixes differently than many other languages – instead of denoting a quality, these “evidentials” can indicate how much evidence the speaker has for what she is saying.
With just one word, a Pirahã can convey information that would take English speakers an entire sentence to describe!
The Pirahã also don’t engage in much phatic communication- small talk like “how are you?” or “my pleasure” is not a part of their everyday conversations.
Instead, they express appreciation through reciprocity – expressing gratitude slightly later rather than immediately.
When it comes to statements, questions, and commands – these are all direct, with no frills or flourishes: “Where is the firewood?”, “It’s down by the river.” or “Go get the wood and bring it here.” Every interaction between Pirahãns speaks directly to the important task at hand and nothing else.
In this way, every conversation reflects their vision of first-hand experience and knowledge at its core.
How Our Language Reflects Our Understanding Of The World Around Us
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes captures how the environment in which we grow up affects the way we see and interact with the world.
It’s clear that how we experience our surroundings has an invaluable impact on how we view things; for instance, during his journey down the Amazon River, Everett had difficulty perceiving danger when he encountered a giant anaconda as it just hadn’t occurred to him that this could be a possibility.
Likewise, the Pirahã people have trouble conceiving of real-world phenomena they’ve never before encountered.
The Pirahã struggled to comprehend two-dimensional images such as photographs, continuing to have difficulty even when degraded images were placed beside the originals.
Similarly, they found it difficult when navigating a busy road, not having any understanding of the speed of oncoming vehicles.
What’s also fascinating is that Everett had trouble perceiving risk in some situations – lacking his Pirahã companion’s ability to spot a scaly caiman in the night – while she had difficulties perceiving ideas foreign to her culture – like two dimensional images or cars.
This suggests that our environment shapes more than just how we view potential threats – but new concepts as well.
It’s therefore true that human language reflects and articulates our conceptions of familiar environments – something invaluable and undeniable understanding each other better.
How Market Forces Put World Languages At Risk Of Extinction
It’s estimated that half of the world’s languages could disappear within the next 50 to a 100 years, leaving behind a diminished cultural landscape.
This is due in part to politics and wars which can decimate tribes that speak these languages, as well as other more global factors such as market forces.
When individuals are incentivized to learn a different, more dominant language for economic reasons, it can lead to language extinction.
This often happens when native speakers of less widely spoken languages must learn another tongue in order to interact with larger cultures or even just simply buy or trade certain goods or resources.
This is less of an issue for the Pirahã who are content living their own isolated lives though and not driven by material possessions.
In addition, when you lose a language it represents much more than just individual sounds – it’s losing thousands of years worth of unique cultural knowledge and ways in which members of ancient societies viewed their environment.
The twentieth century has already seen an alarming number of language disappearances and if current trends continue then we may be facing the extinction of half the world’s languages by 2100, leading to an irreparable loss in our collective culture and history.
“Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Language in Everyday Life and Why it Matters” is an important book about how our environment shapes us, how we interact with each other, and why languages are such powerful tools.
It dives into the unique cultural perspectives that can be lost when a language or dialect dies out.
The book also explores how languages articulate our interactions while simultaneously being shaped by them.
The key takeaway from this book is that language carries within it not just data but also valuable human knowledge and invaluable cultural perspectives.
It’s a reminder of why we must care for and protect the many different languages that exist all over the world.