Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes

This book has changed my outlook on language systems considerably because it has challenged considerably one of the theories I had most fervently believed in : the arbitrary nature of the sign. Everett does this by describing in explicit detail the ways by which Pirahã language is shaped by Pirahã culture, and vice versa. This is demonstrated perfectly in Everett’s delineation of the common language features which are absent within Pirahã, those most significant being the lack of numbers, quantifiers, and exact colour terms. These missing components can be explained quite simply by the fact that there is no place for them in this lifestyle. The issue of colours, for example, is dealt with by using phrases of comparison, such as ‘blood’ for red. These people don’t need colour terms because they are able to describe colours using elements from their surroundings, and this exemplifies how the language is morphed by the environment. The issue of the number, it seems, also must be lacking because it is not culturally valued. Either this, or the Pirahã self-contained way of life does not require it, quantity recognition over three is not needed for systems to function. Everett has taught me how a language can accommodate not only a way of life but also an environment being lived in, the climate, nature, physical restrictions. Giving directions

The fundamental, unique quality of Pirahã language which Everett outlines for us is the presence of IEP : The Immediacy of Experience Principle. This principle supports my previous realisation that language has the potential to be formed precisely by a lifestyle. The IEP summarises the ethos of Pirahã life - living in the now, not planning for and showing no concern for the future. This ethos acts as a foundation for the language, allowing uncountable elements to be affected by it. Firstly, the Pirahã people will not talk about events that they have not experienced themselves firsthand, excluding distant past or distant future events or fictional topics completely. Pirahãs only make statements that are anchored to the moment when they are speaking, rather than to any other point in time. There is a distinct absence of discussion of history, creation, and folklore. Myths do not involve events for which there is no living eye witness. Everett also places the blame of complete scarcity of recursion (phrases within other phrases) on IEP. He claims that the principle allows declarative clauses to contain only assertions and as a result sentences cannot lie inside others as they do, for example, in English.

Getting to know The Immediacy of Experience Principle whilst reading this book has allowed me to understand that the elements of my own language which I had initially deemed essential, crucial to fully functioning language, are not a ‘loss’ for the Pirahã people. For the most part, the Pirahã people are immersing themselves in a lifestyle that they enjoy. Living for the present and the immediate future only allows for what appears to me personally as an - almost - utopian existence, focussed entirely on the current situation and guaranteeing only current happiness and wellbeing. I can conclude wholeheartedly that the Pirahã people are not disadvantaged by the linguistic tools unavailable to them : these are not needed or wanted. The strength of the IEP is confirmed most prominently by the author’s acceptance that because of it, he cannot complete the task that he came to the Amazon to do (translate the Bible into Pirahã and hence spread the word of Christianity). If the Pirahãs have no interest in legacy, the influence of the past, then there would be no chance of them ever digesting the lessons of Jesus Christ.

Another feature of the Pirahã language that I feel rather enlightened by is the role of channels. Everett registered five channels during his close interaction with the language - whistle speech, musical speech, yell speech, hum speech and normal speech. Each channel has a specific function e.g. humming for privacy. This is a feature of the language which enables exclusion - as the whistling channel is only able to be used by men during hunting. The presence of channels is facilitated by yet another significant facet of the language, the extremely small number of vowels and consonants (eight consonants and three vowels). I am really interested in this notion of the language having these settings, which can be used in order to make speech more effective in specific situations.