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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

By Daniel Everett
10-minute read
Audio available
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes (2008) tell us about the unique culture and language of the Pirahã, an indigenous people of the Amazonian jungle who don’t use numbers, have names for colors or bother with small talk. They also laugh and smile more than most other cultures. These blinks explain what languages can tell us about the human experience and, moreover, why we shouldn’t forget how many other cultures and languages besides our own exist around the world.

  • Language enthusiasts looking to learn more
  • Anyone who thinks all languages are more or less the same
  • Citizens of the world looking to gain fresh perspectives on other cultures

Daniel Everett is an American linguist and author who spent four decades living and working among the Pirahã. He is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts.

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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

By Daniel Everett
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
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Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett
Synopsis

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes (2008) tell us about the unique culture and language of the Pirahã, an indigenous people of the Amazonian jungle who don’t use numbers, have names for colors or bother with small talk. They also laugh and smile more than most other cultures. These blinks explain what languages can tell us about the human experience and, moreover, why we shouldn’t forget how many other cultures and languages besides our own exist around the world.

Key idea 1 of 6

The Pirahã live in the Amazonian jungle and speak a language unrelated to any other extant language.

We use language to conceptualize the world as we see it. Imagine not having a word for “worry” because no such notion exists. This is true of the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN). It’s not that their lives aren’t without hardships, they just conceive of the world differently.

The Pirahã are hunter-gatherers who live along the Maici River in the Amazonian jungle of northwestern Brazil. The Pirahã language is the last remaining dialect of the Mura language group.

The Pirahã are monolingual and probably moved to the area after their language developed. We’re confident of this because they use Portuguese loanwords, probably picked up from other tribes, to describe some of the native species of monkeys.

It’s not an easy life in the jungle – the Pirahã are a tough lot. But they also happen to be among the happiest people you’re likely to meet.

Anthropologists who have spent time with them were asked to assess them in terms of how much time they spent laughing and smiling compared to other cultures they had encountered. The carefree Pirahã reliably came out on top.

The worldview of the Pirahã is perhaps best summarized by how they wish each other “good night.”

They have several ways to say this and one of them is “don’t sleep, there are snakes.” While this is quite a peculiar way of wishing someone sweet dreams, it’s also quite matter-of-fact.

First of all, poisonous snakes do slither about in the Amazonian jungle, and the Pirahã’s bedtime advice is their way of saying that if you don’t keep your wits about you, you won’t last long. Second, it shows us how they treat sleep; they may not sleep the whole night through, but they certainly don’t lie awake paralyzed by fear, either.

Late-night conversations can be heard in the open huts, and the night air is regularly punctuated by laughter – a sign of the Pirahãn way of life.

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