44 / Books

This post for the blog was contributed by an old friend:

Don’t sleep, there are snakes

Do you have a book you wish you had written? I have several, including Don’t sleep, there are snakes by Daniel Everett. Don’t sleep was first published in 2008, so forgive me if you know of it already.

The book is written by a North American missionary and recounts his thirty years with the Pirahã, a Brazilian tribe speaking one of the most difficult to learn languages in the world. They use, for example, only three vowels, eight consonants and one tense. To extract meaning from so limited a palate, their words are longcompoundstructures, difficult for outsiders to comprehend.

I am not religious and usually avoid missionary writing. But, I could not resist reading about how the author attempted to explain the Holy Trinity using a language with only two number concepts: ‘not many’ and ‘a lot’. Spoiler alert: he failed.

The Pirahã emerge from Everett’s book as a happy, resourceful, people living in the pre-stone age; the twig age perhaps. Like many preliterate cultures they have no interest in ideas that are not in their direct experience. Instead of converting the Pirahã to a North American vision of the afterlife, the author loses his faith when confronted with their profound acceptance of the here and now.

As he tries to translate the Bible using only onetenseandtwonumbers Everett realises that virtually everything he – and we – have been told about linguistics is wrong. He concludes that the dominant academic theories of linguistics cannot not be reconciled with the world of the Pirahã.

Don’t sleep is a cracking adventure story. But, what I most admire is that the book asserts the value of empirical evidence over ungrounded theory and dogma. That is an important message in our post-truth world.

What about you?  What books do you most admire?  

© Benóg Brady Bates (Dolmen, Giant's Ring, Belfast)


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