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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Conlanger’s Review

Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 in Books, Natural Languages, Nonfiction

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle recounts the experiences and research of author Daniel Everett with the Pirahã. Their language, also known as Pirahã, is notorious in linguistics circles for numerous traits uncovered by Everett. The New Yorker published an extensive article about Everett and his work in 2007 that does a good job of introducing readers to the controversy. Being neither a professional linguist nor having a particular linguistic axe to grind, I can’t contribute anything to that debate (nor would I want to wade into those waters); however, I can share some thoughts on the book and its story from a layperson’s perspective as well as provide some interesting conlinguistic titbits that the book has to offer.

The book’s title comes from a common "Good night" phrase that the Pirahã say and is good advice for a culture living deep in the Amazon jungle. The native culture in which Everett and his family find themselves is vividly portrayed (and not sugar-coated). The book’s first section, roughly two-thirds, recounts the story of Everett and his family among the Pirahã; the last third goes into more depth on the Pirahã language itself. Both sections are fascinating and include glimpses of the missionary zeal of Everett and his wife, unsettling cultural practices of the Pirahã, humorous cross-cultural incidents, and much more.

As usual, in book reviews here at The Conlanging Librarian, let’s examine some interesting linguistic twists that an enterprising conlanger might take advantage of from Pirahã. We’ll avoid the ones that many people may already know, including the language’s lack of recursion (see here). The first concept that struck me was the idea of kagi. Let’s take some examples from the text to see this in action first:

  • “rice and beans” could be termed "rice with kagi"
  • Dan arrives in the village with his children: "Dan arrived with kagi"
  • Dan arrives in the vilage with his wife: "Dan arrived with kagi"
  • A person goes to hunt with his dogs: "He went hunting with kagi"

Everett ends up translating the term kagi as "expected associate" with the expectation being culturally determined. A man's wife is expected to be associated with him. One expects a person to go hunting with his dogs. And so on.

The terms bigí and xoí are also associated with a culturally-determined meaning. The Pirahã believe in a layered universe. The bigí is the boundary between those layers. The xoí is the entire biosphere between bigí. To go into the jungle is to go deeper into the xoí. To remain motionless in a boat is to stay still in the xoí. If something falls from the sky, it may be said to come from the upper bigí. This way of dividing up the universe is similar in some ways to the way Deutscher described splitting up the visible spectrum in his book. Deutscher’s book also mentions fixed directional systems, and the Pirahã also use an upriver-downriver fixed point system instead of our left-right orientation. I still find this an interesting set of concepts to play with in a conlang.

Everett also contends that the Pirahã do not have a number system. According to him, they use a system of relative volume: hoi can appear to mean "two" but, in reality, can mean simply that two small fish or one medium fish are relatively smaller that a hoi fish. Everett recounts the trials of attempting to teach a number of Pirahãs to count in Portuguese, with very little success. He even goes so far as to say that there are not even words for quanitifers like "all, each, every, and so on." Instead, there are "quantifierlike" words (or affixes) that translate as "the bulk of" (Lit., the bigness of) the people went swimming and other relative terms. There are other words that mean the whole or part of something (usually something eaten). This way of looking at amounts, numbers, portions, etc., is fertile ground on which to play once again.

Finally (but no means the last intriguing concept in the book), Everett talks about the tribe's use of the term xibipíío which, loosely translated, means something like "the act of just entering or leaving perception, that is, a being on the boundaries of experience". "The match began to flicker. The men commented, 'The match is xibipíío-ing' . . . A flickering flame is a flame that repeatedly comes and goes out of experience or perception." However, the word can also be used for someone disappearing in a canoe around the bend in a river or for an airplane that just comes into view over the trees. The word has much wider connotations that an English-speaker saying something appears or disappears.

I have no idea what Everett thinks of conlangers or the art of language creation or if he is even aware of us. The final section of the book is entitled "Why Care About Other Cultures and Languages?" and lays out a good rationale for why this is important. In the end, there really is no comparison between language creation and preserving endangered languages. As M.S. Soderquist said on CONLANG-L: Creating a new hobby language doesn’t affect natural languages any more than playing Monopoly affects the economy. Conlangers can get their inspirations from any source, and Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle is a treasure trove of novel ideas as well as a a glimpse into another world and another culture and another way of seeing the world.

Bring on the comments

  1. Aritfact says:

    I would have a hard time living in a jungle like the ones talked about here. Mainly because of venomous snakes. I would at least be wearing snake proof gear like snake gaiters or snake boots. It would be a fascinating life to explore this type of areas and meet those types of people. Thanks for the post.

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