This book has been on my TBR shelf on Goodreads for years, like literally for years. So not only am I very glad that I finally got around to reading it, but that I also found it extremely enjoyable! I put this book on my TBR because it hit all my buttons: travel memoir, the Amazon, native tribes, and linguistics and thoughts on the nature of language. However, even though I was sure there would be a lot to love about this book, I was hesitant about it for two reasons. First, Everett first comes to the Pirahã as a missionary. Although I know that missionaries the world over to wonderful work in regards to providing education, medical care, clothes, and other basic necessities, I admit I feel somewhat uncomfortable when I consider the fact that people travel the world to impoverished communities with the sole goal of converting people to a religion that is not a part of their native cultural context. My second concern was that I knew going into the book that, thanks in part to his experiences with the Pirahã, Everett eventually becomes an atheist; I have nothing against atheists or atheism but I was concerned that the book would start from a missionary perspective and eventually become focused on Everett’s conversion to atheism in the second half; I didn’t want a book on religion- I wanted a book about the Pirahã and their culture and language.
I needn’t have worried. The missionary institution that Everett was a part of believed that the best way to convert non-Christian peoples was through providing a translation the Gospel into their native language, so Everett’s official missionary work was to learn Pirahã . And Everett’s questioning of his own faith and the loss of his belief in God was confined solely to the Epilogue. The Pirahãs, their culture, and their language took center stage, which is just how I hoped it would be.
In over 200 years of contact with explorers, colonists, and Brazilians living in the interior, the Pirahãs have never learned Portuguese and there is not a single bit of evidence that any Pirahã has ever been converted to Christianity or left the tribe for life in the towns and cities of the Amazonian interior. The Pirahã are unique in this regard; most of indigenous tribes in the surrounding area have adapted Portuguese and became farmers and Christians (at least nominally) some time ago. The Pirahãs are different: they know only a few words of Portuguese (they refuse to learn it), rely on hunting (mostly fishing) and gathering, have little to no material culture, and although they borrow tools and larger canoes from the ‘outside,’ they refuse to make or maintain them even if they have been taught how to do so. The Pirahãs regard themselves, their language, and their culture as vastly superior to all others; they don’t want anther way of life, or a new religion as Everett finds out when they tell him point-blank that if he wants to stay in their village that he has to stop talking about Jesus so often.
In addition to having a culture different from the surrounding native tribes and Brazilians, the Pirahã also have a language that is not only different from those surrounding it but is also different from any known language in the world. They have no words for colors, no counting system, and, most significantly, no recursion in their sentences (they do not embed phrases and sentences within sentences- ie. ‘The man who is tall is on the path’). According to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, recursion is an obligatory part of each and every language in the world. And yet Pirahã most certainly does not have recursion (although they will speak 2 or 3 sentences one after another in such a way that they function as a recursive sentence but the sentences themselves contain no recursion). This lack of recursion in the Pirahã language has forced linguists to reconsider the very nature of language, its evolution, and its components.
I can’t express how much I enjoyed this book. Everett’s writing is engaging and personable and his respect for the Pirahãs as a people and a culture is evident on every page. A warning: although the first half of the book focuses on Everett and his family’s experiences with living in and adjusting to life in a Pirahã village and to exchanging an American lifestyle for a way of living dependent on the Amazon for survival, the second half of the book is entirely forced on the Pirahã language. Everett does his best to keep it simple while still describing what is important and unique about their language and how his findings contradict many linguists ideas about language and, most importantly, Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory. If you’re not a fan of linguists or the ins-and-outs of language, it’s syntax, and components, then the second half of the book might seem a bit too technical or to drag a bit. But since I find these thing interesting I enjoyed this section just as much as the first part. Overall, I’m kicking myself that it took me so long to read such an informative and entertaining book. I very much enjoyed my trip to the Amazon and learning about such a unique group of people through this Everett and his experiences.