Daniel Everett

On this date in 1951, linguist Daniel Everett was born in Holtville, Calif., to a working-class family. A voracious reader, Everett became interested in linguistics after viewing "My Fair Lady" as a high schooler. He met Keren Graham, the daughter of Christian missionaries, in high school and, at 17, became a born-again Christian. A year later, he and Keren married. After graduating from the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago in 1975, they both enrolled in an international evangelical organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (S.I.L.), with the mission of "spreading the Word of God" by translating the bible into the languages of preliterate societies. Everett was chosen to work with the Piraha, a small tribe of about 350 people in the jungles of Brazil. S.I.L. had sent prior missionaries to this tribe before, but due to the complexity of the Piraha language, none had succeeded in mastering it. Among other challenges, it is a language that is as likely to be hummed or whistled, as it is to be spoken. Keren, Everett and their three young children were sent to the Piraha village at the mouth of Maici River. The Piraha have resisted all efforts from outside influences, steadfastly maintaining their own culture. The preliterate Piraha live and speak in the present and "shun outsiders' knowledge," Everett said (The New Yorker, April 2007). Everett's conclusion that the Piraha language lacks grammatical recursion (sentences embedded within sentences, a concept promoted by foremost linguist Noam Chomsky, and considered a cornerstone of language) has created controversy in the field of modern linguistics. Everett discovered the Piraha have no creation myths; they don't draw pictures or make up stories about the ancient past. They believe in spirits, with which they may have a direct encounter, but "there's no great god who created all the spirits," Everett noted (Science News, Dec. 2005).

The Piraha consistently responded to missionary stories about Jesus Christ by asking, "Have you met this man?" Everett said: "They lived so well without religion and they were so happy. Also they didn't believe what I was saying because I didn't have evidence for it . . . I began to think: what am I doing here, giving them these 2000-year-old concepts when everything of value I can think of to communicate to them they already have?" (New Scientist, Jan. 19, 2008). Influenced by the Piraha's way of seeing the world, Everett eventually lost his faith and became an atheist. It took 19 years before he told his wife and, when he did, their marriage ended and two of his three children disassociated themselves from him. Daniel Everett serves as chair of linguistics, languages and cultures at Illinois State University at Normal. His book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Life in the Amazon, was published by Random House in 2008: "The Pirahas have shown me that there is dignity and deep satisfaction in facing life and death without the comforts of heaven or the fear of hell, and of sailing towards the great abyss with a smile. And they have shown me that for years I held many of my beliefs without warrant. I have learned these things from the Pirahas, and I will be grateful to them for as long as I live."

“I went from being a Christian missionary to an atheist.”

—-Daniel Everett, Interview, New Scientist, Jan. 18, 2008

Compiled by Jane Esbensen

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