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In 1977 Daniel Everett, an American linguist and Evangelical missionary, came to the tribe of the Pirahă (pronounced pee-da-HAN) with his wife and his three children, aged seven, four and one. He was 27 years old then, on and off he lived with the Pirahă for 30 years during which he spent a total of seven years with them. The Pirahă are a hunter-gatherer tribe settling along 50 miles of the River Maici, a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon in Brazil.
His task was to learn their language so well that he could translate the New Testament into it. The church that sent him doesn‘t believe in preaching but only in translating the Bible for the heathens, God‘s word will then speak for itself.
Everett was not the first European to stay with the Pirahă, the first contact they had with Europeans took place in 1714, but before him no one had managed to learn their language fluently. The task was exceptionally difficult for several reasons. Firstly, learning had to be done monolingually. i.e., Everett and the Pirahă had no common language. They don’t know Portuguese although they trade with Brazilians. Everett had “to learn the language to learn the language”.
Secondly, the language of the Pirahă, which is spoken by fewer than 400 people, isn’t related to any known language on earth, thusly what he had already learnt as a linguist studying other languages didn’t help him. Thirdly, it has only three vowels and eight consonants and it’s tonal like, for example, Chinese. The height and stress of a syllable determine the meaning. Fourthly, the language can be spoken, sung, whistled and hummed. The Pirahă were willing to help and by and by through trial and error Everett unravelled the secrets of the language.
From the beginning he was also keen on learning about their culture. He wasn‘t trained as an anthropologist but observing them as individuals, their interaction with each other and with nature gave him insights no anthropologist had ever heard of. The Pirahă have no hierarchical society, no chief, no religion, no rituals, no art, no myths, no concern about the past, no concept of a hereafter. They only live in the present knowing that “life is good”. They spend a lot of time laughing, they laugh at their own misfortune, when someone’s hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when they catch no fish. They laugh when they’re full and they laugh when they’re hungry.
Everett confesses that he “indulged in self-pity“ at the beginning, he would have preferred to work with “more interesting people“. But the more he got to know them and their world view, the more he was fascinated.
The Pirahă have no words for numbers, colours, for brother and sister, right and left. When Everett lived with them, they asked him to teach them numbers in Portuguese because they felt they were important in order not to get cheated by the river traders. Everett, his wife and his three children (nine, six and three at that time) worked daily with men and women for eight months, but not one Pirahă learnt to count to ten or add 1 + 1!
Everett concluded that the immediacy of experience was the explanation of this extraordinary non-achievement. Numbers are abstractions and generalisations lying outside immediate experience, and are something Pirahă can’t think.
Everett’s work with the Pirahă language led him to challenge Noam Chomsky’s hitherto sacrosanct theory that biology accounts for the evolution of human grammar. He claims that in the case of the Pirahă language has emerged from their culture. Besides, the language has no recursion, a feature which for Chomsky is the crucial component of any human language.
Over all this linguistic work Everett didn’t forget his missionary assignment. He managed to translate Mark’s Gospel but failed miserably in making any impact religion-wise. The Pirahă are ‘missionary-proof’. They believe only what they themselves have seen or someone they know and trust has seen. 2000-year-old tales about Jesus stand no chance with them. They told Everett politely that he was welcome to stay but they didn’t want to hear any more about Jesus.
By and by he understood that the task of the missionary is “to convince a happy, satisfied people that they’re lost and need Jesus as their savior.” He remembered his evangelism professor who used to say, “You’ve gotta get ‘em lost before you can get ‘em saved.” In the end he lost his faith, he came as a missionary to Amazonia and left as an atheist.
The Americans have a way with non-fiction I find admirable. I have no experience with British authors of non-fiction, I can only compare them with German ones. Americans can be serious, committed and profound but are also immensely readable. Everett’s account doesn’t only deal with language, culture and religion, it’s also an adventurer’s tale brimming with dangerous encounters. Life-threatening malaria bouts, venomous snakes, caimans, a forty-feet long and three feet thick anaconda, jaguars, to say nothing of cockroaches, tarantulas and zillions of mozzies as house guests make for thrilling reading.
Some readers may find Everett’s linguistic explanations too explicit, they can skip them without losing the general thread. The Epilogue discusses the question “Why Care About Other Cultures and Languages?” Everett, now Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University, gives a satisfying answer.
If I’ve succeeded in tickling your interest, I’ll be as happy as a Pirahă whose hut has been blown away in a rainstorm, who hasn’t caught a fish for some time and whose favourite hunting dog has been devoured by an anaconda.