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Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  4,587 ratings  ·  612 reviews
A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977–with his wife and three young children–intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published November 11th 2008 by Pantheon
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Jun 02, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pub-2008
You know know that situation when you meet somebody and they really annoy you but later on, much to your surprise, you end being very good friends with them? That's what happened with me and Mr Everett. My initial reaction to him and what I was reading was: Oh geez, what an American! And I apologise to all my American friends, I love you all, but I did mean that pejoratively. One example: Everett was really upset with all the people of Brazil for seemingly not giving a damn about the fact his wi ...more
Kim Malcolm
Feb 02, 2010 rated it it was ok
I wanted to like this book but I never really trusted its author, a linguist with an editor who used the phrase "a myriad of" in the first chapter. Everett's descriptions of the Pirahas are oddly incongruent. For example, he characterized them as "peaceful" right before mentioning the rape of a young woman by "most" of the men in the village. While most anthropologists would consider this a significant event, Everett refers to it in parentheses. Everett says the Pirahas are lacking in ritual and ...more
David Rim
Feb 10, 2010 rated it liked it
Ok, I'll say it. It creeps me out when over-educated/churched white people go to live in jungles with non-white/non-educated/underprivileged people to "learn" their way and then promote their way of life as some kind of idyllic vision.

The writing is not great, so you'll have to enjoy this one on its non-fiction contributions. The general idea, as Everett puts it, is that standard view of linguistics (grammar is divorced somewhat from semantics and is universal in nature) cannot account for the o
David Campton
I gave this book a relatively poor rating, not because I am a Christian minister and this book concludes (SPOILER ALERT) with the unsurprising revelation that through his work with the Piraha he had abandoned his Christian faith, but because it was a literary dog's dinner. Wasn't entirely sure what the author was trying to do in this book. Was it an autobiography, linguistic anthropology, critique of Chomsky's theories, or an anti-missionary apologetic? The lack of a clear structure and aim to t ...more
Jay Green
May 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Not mind-blowing (I've been around too long to have my mind blown), but undoubtedly mind-expanding. A fascinating account of one evangelical Christian's conversion to agnosticism as a result of years spent studying a remote Amazonian tribe's language and culture. Some very amusing anecdotes combined with some illuminating observations about the role of culture in shaping language, contrary to the prevailing paradigm of linguistics. Well worth a read. ...more
Dec 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: owned
UPDATE 2/28/2019 -- revised review and rating.
Ughhh I mentioned this book in my thesis proposal today and one of the committee members (linguistics professor) said to not take Everett's claims too seriously. The examples cited in this book were anecdotal, which is not necessarily always a problem. BUT - the issue was Everett has never been open to sharing his data (as he seemed to claim in this book).

I came across this book from a linguistics seminar on language perception and production
Frank Stein
May 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Another one of the best books I've read all year.

At first I was enjoying the book as a fairly typical, though well-written, anthropology slash adventure story, concerning an idealistic young missionary who goes off into the Amazon to convert an almost untouched tribe of hunter-gatherers. Everett gives a wonderful sense of life among the tribe, and of those great little moments which show exactly how similar and how different we all are: from the time the men killed the anaconda for the sole purp
Mar 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
Moved to gwern.net. ...more
Everett's limitations with regard to religion made him unable to understand that the Piraha really did have a religion. They actually spoke to him about their interactions with spirits. The Piraha accept only direct experience as valid. This is why the Bible has no meaning to them, but if Everett had said "I saw Jesus today and this is what he told me," they would have accepted that as legitimate testimony. Direct interaction with the divine is found in all religious traditions. The Piraha appro ...more
Apr 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
I thought this would have been better with less atheist proselytizing. Most of the study seems to have been conducted on male pirahã even though he alludes to the fact women speak differently. This seems to lead to the presentation of the male variant as standard. He also romanticizes the tribe to fit what he wants to see, painting them in as evidence driven atheists, which just misses the mark to me, based on his description of their spiritualism, and peaceful while glossing over incidents of g ...more
Mar 29, 2018 rated it liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Paul Ataua
Sep 03, 2019 rated it liked it
I finally got around to this after years of telling myself I ought to read it. I mean this is about the tribe that seems to have a language that doesn’t exhibit Chomsky’s deep structures, and that threw the linguistics community into disarray. I was, however, fairly disappointed on the whole. I am not criticizing the work he has done or the conclusions he has come to professionally, but just felt this book was too shallow a document to satisfy my thirst for deeper knowledge of the Pirahã culture ...more
Ross Blocher
Sep 10, 2022 rated it really liked it
Daniel Everett tells his own story of traveling as a Christian missionary in the late 70s (initially, with his wife and kids) deep into the Amazonian jungle to embed himself with the Pirahã (roughly, "PEE-du-hah"). They are a group of indigenous people who have maintained a language and culture distinct in many, fascinating ways. As a missionary, his intent was to convert, but he had to first convince the Brazilian authorities that he had some other purpose, so he registered as a language studen ...more
Apr 18, 2016 rated it it was ok
I took issue with a few things. At first, I enjoyed Everett's descriptions of his time spent with the Piraha, a small, surviving band of indigenous Amazonians. There's no doubt that he spent an enormous amount of time studying the Piraha and their language. He shares many details I found interesting such as how they make their bows and arrows, their use of exocentric navigational orientation, and hum speech, to name a few. However, as I continued to read, I couldn't shake the niggling sense that ...more
Sep 20, 2017 rated it liked it
2017 Reading Challenge category: 7. A book with an animal on the cover or in the title

Daniel Everett is a former missionary and current linguist who has spent a bunch of time with a native group called the Pirahã in Brazil. My opinion of this book jumped around a lot over time. Everett is clearly a gifted linguist, but aside from that, this was clearly a book written by someone who had the foresight to say yes to an interesting experience as opposed to someone who is an inherently interesting wr
Jeremy Keeshin
Jul 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
In Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Daniel Everett, a linguist and missionary, tells his story about going to live and study among the Piraha in the Amazon. It’s a great story and lots of fun to read. I’d say it’s especially fun considering the latter part of it is almost like a casual linguistics textbook but still very fascinating.

The book is part biography, part linguistics research, but also jumps into philosophy and trying to reconcile conflicting ideas on cultural values.

Everett starts off a
Richard Reese
Mar 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One day, listening to the jungle drums on the info-stream, I heard that a study had concluded that the happiest people in the world were the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) tribe of the Amazon (true). I heard that some guy then went to visit them, to discover the source of their bliss (false). I heard that his name was Daniel L. Everett, and the book was Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (true). My library had the book, and reading it was a rewarding experience (true).

Everett spent much of 30 years among the P
Feb 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
As anyone who has had a conversation with me over the last week can attest to, I think this book, and especially the parts about the culture of the Piraha tribe in the Amazon rainforest is fascinating. The Piraha have frequent contact with neighboring tribes and Brazilians, traders, anthropologists, linguists on a regular basis, yet they are isolationists and somehow seem to avoid being contaminated by any hint of consumerism, ambition or outside culture in any sense. They are content with their ...more
The fact that Everett went there to convert the Pirahã to Christianity but ended up losing his own faith was an impressive plot twist. The Pirahã have managed, through sheer force of being content with their own lives, to reject Western culture and capitalism. You can't sell any Abrahamic religion without the guilt, the shame, the insecurities, and the economic system, so they are immune. I'm sure the fact that they won't believe second hand stories also helps, but the Pirahã plainly don't have ...more
Mar 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the most interesting books I've read in recent memory. The author (a former-Christian-missionary-turned-linguist) gives an account of his time spent among the Piraha people of the Amazon and what he learned about their culture and language during his years trying to convert them to Christianity and translate the Bible into their language, Piraha.

The first section of the book describes the daily trials of living in the Amazon, how the Pirahas live, what they do, and how they intera
Gabriel Lando
Apr 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
I have been thinking about the Pirahã language for quite a while. This book, written by the only non-Pirahã person in the world that is fluent in the language, is invaluable: The discovery that Pirahã uses exocentric communication, has basically no consonant value, has such a richness of registers and has the inclusion of proximity degree within its agglutinative verbs... All so well described. It's amazing to read this man's 30 year journey into this completely new, untranslatable universe, and ...more
Jul 27, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What an eye-opener this book is for us civilized folks whose only imaginable way of life is the Western bourgeois life. Daniel Everett lived on and off for seven years among a small tribe in the Brazilian Amazon named Pirahã. His goal was to convert them into Christianity. Instead, what he found in the jungle and what he learned from the the Piraha ended up challenging everything he believed in.

The first section of the book, which is about the way the Pirahã live their lives, is absolutely amazi
Feb 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I was doing undergraduate and graduate work in linguistics, I always felt deeply weird about the Summer Institute of Linguistics. We owe a lot of language documentation to them -- because in a lot of cases, especially these days, they're the ones out there actually doing the fieldwork -- and, back before Unicode was a thing, the SIL's International Phonetic Alphabet fonts were the only game in town. So if you were into phonetics or phonology, which I was, you basically had to accept that he ...more
May 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
Daniel Everett is a linguist and a former Christian missionary. Starting in 1977, he spent 30 years living with his family among the Pirahã people, a tribe of several hundred hunters-gatherers residing in a few riverside villages in Brazil's state of Amazonas. Although the Pirahã had first been contacted by the outside world in the 18th century, before Everett no outsider had been able to learn their language, the last surviving member of its language family; speakers of the other languages in t ...more
This book seems like three separate books rolled into one. I'm not sure that they all belonged in one volume. And parts of all three are mixed together with no discernible method of ordering them.

The first of the three books is a collection of stories from the author's experiences living with the Pirahas, an Amazonian tribe still largely untouched by the modern world. Most of these stories were good; some were boring. If he had stopped here, I would have given him 4 or 5 stars. This was the book
Oct 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
So far I've seen a great quote, something along the lines of "This book is about the lessons I've learned. Someone else would have learned different lessons."

I bought this book because it was used at Bookshop Santa Cruz, and I was in the mood for travel. In a previous life time I was an anthropology major at UCSC, and I've taken linguistics classes. I didn't realize that this book was about linguistics when I purchased it on a whim, and my heart sank a little when I realized the author was a mis
Nov 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book about a Christian missionary who goes to Brazil. While his initial mission is as a missionary, he is also a linguist. I was reading this book to prepare for a qualitative research course I am teaching next semester. I think this will be a great read for the class. It's also so interesting that I have been reading parts of it to my boys who are aged 9, 9, & 11. (Note that I said I am reading selected parts - not all of this is appropriate for children. But the adventure and the l ...more
Andrew Hall
Jul 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Good mixture of his story of his experience living with the Pirahã in the Amazon, the anthropological lessons he learns there, and the linguistic theories that he develops from that experience. The book drags in the second half--his explanation of the linguistic theory and his challenge to the Chomsky orthodoxy is not easy to make interesting, but he makes a good effort. His discussion of the Pirahã as one of the happiest people on earth is very interesting, but seems male-centric, he gives some ...more
The stuff about the Pirahã culture and Daniel's life in the jungle with them was really interesting. It was quite linguistics-heavy at times, which largely went over my head. I wish he'd explained more about his actions as a missionary and subsequent de-conversion; that part is glossed over quite quickly at the end. ...more
Sep 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
My husband picked this one up and spent quite a bit of time telling me about the Pirahas and so I felt somewhat required to read it. Overall it is a very interesting book with lots of great stories about jungle life, funny anecdotes and life lessons. As a “pop” linguistic book, it is slightly educational and very readable (and so can appeal to the masses). I am not a linguist and realize that some of my comments below may be misguided, misdirected, or just completely off the mark.

However, I do
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Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University. He has held appointments in linguistics and/or anthropology at the University of Campinas, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Manchester, and Illinois State University.

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“They have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality. Indeed, the concept has no place in their values. Truth to the Pirahãs is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria. Does this make them more primitive? Many anthropologists have suggested so, which is why they are so concerned about finding out the Pirahãs notions about God, the world, and creation.

But there is an interesting alternative to think about things. Perhaps it is their presence of these concerns that makes a culture more primitive, and their absense that renders a culture more sophisticated. If that is true, the Pirahãs are a very sophisticated people. Does this sound far-fetched? Let's ask ourselves if it is more sophisticated to look at the universe with worry, concern, and a believe that we can understand it all, or to enjoy life as it comes, recognizing the likely futility of looking for truth or God?”
“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and other aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.” 4 likes
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