dead fish and the grammar of happiness

gullprints surround a fish in the belly of another

A day at the beach so cold and windy that the only other life there was a gull or two (or three or four) who had picked apart a couple of huge fish carcasses. The water, normally icy cold, was almost disturbingly warm, reminding me of a swim I had pre-Katrina in the gulf when I thought the same thing. Once home, de-sanded and showered, I watched a fascinating documentary called The Grammar of Happiness.

Vipers live in the tall grass of academia and religious wars are hardest fought within the walls not of the tallest fortress but those of the mind. The very thing we often chastise our children for, living solely for the moment without attention to past or future, is shown here to be not only a philosophy which brings about an ineffable happiness, but one reflected in a language that has made the rest of the world scratch its head with confusion and disbelief.

The story begins some thirty years ago when a twenty-something missionary, Daniel Everett, trekked to the depths of Amazonia to spread the good word and convert the tribe who lived there, the Pirahã. Didn’t work. Amidst the snakes and the malaria and the physical trials which he and his young family suffered, Everett underwent a trial of his own, a crisis of faith which led him to not only renounce the mission but also the purpose behind it. With his faith went his marriage and, for a time, children.

In the years he spent there he and his wife Keren (who is no longer his wife, but continues to work with the Pirahã as a missionary) learned this complex, unwritten language. They built their fluency with painstaking attention, patiently listening and documenting (as linguists are wont to do), becoming the only people in the world (besides the missionary who preceded them) outside of the tribe to speak pirahã.

Linguistics was at once Everett’s salvation and his curse, for along with his religious crisis of faith, he experienced an academic one, formulating along the way some extremely controversial theories which pit him against none other than the God of Linguistics, Noam Chomsky. His findings shake up the current theories of how language forms and crushes Chomsky’s theory that recursion is what unites us all, the ability to expand upon a sentence to make it grow and grow and grow like a string of pearls. Nasty stuff this battle between scholars—shocking for its vitriol.

How tenderly Everett portrayed this people who communicate as much through words as whistles and song, and whose language has only a present tense, reflective of their worldview. They have no need for naming colors or directions, for quantifying amounts or numbers or relationships. They live in the moment, unconcerned with past events and without projecting ahead to worry about the future. They do not “farm” (although some manioc plants have sprouted from where Everett surmises they spit out some seeds) but instead reap the bounty from forest and river, the bounty that nature offers them with such generosity. They have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora and fauna which surround them and coexist with them in what seems to be perfect harmony. Everett’s love for these people and their way of life (although he admits to upsizing his own shack so that it had a few amenities, like snake-proof walls) is clearly catching.

We can only empathize too with his crise de foi… How can one “save” a people for whom neither hell nor heaven have meaning, who live fully and absolutely in the present? How might one convince them that they have a need for a god they view as yet another “foreigner,” for a Christ who no one has ever seen with their own eyes? Everett lost his faith when he found that he could not answer their questions, and when he began asking himself the same. In Everett’s own words, “I used to be a passionate believer, but living with the Pirahãs, I realized that trying to convert people is just another form of colonialism.”

While the linguists battle over the presence or non-presence of recursion and the missionaries strive for conversion, the Brazilian powers-that-be have given them electricity, television, running water, schools and another language, Portuguese. Basic rights of a citizen (note I espouse the belief that having internet access is right up there with unalienable rights, but television I have a problem with…). Modernity has arrived and with it change. Everett, however, is undaunted by these developments, believing the Piranhã will continue as they always have to preserve their culture and their language, and hence their happiness. I, however, worry about those Brazilian soap operas…

N.B. As is often the case, The New Yorker was onto the interest of this story some five years ago, and John Colapinto, the author of this piece, not only wrote of Everett, but began the article with a description of how he accompanied him to Brazil and to the Pirahã village… An incredible read.


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