Don't Sleep There Are Snakes!

piraPerhaps you have heard the saying, 'cultures are mutually incomprehensible.'  To start off, most people in the world have not had an immersion experience with another culture.  Most people do not have the experience to say whether or not they are capable of comprehending another culture.  Secondly, culture is not so easy to define.  The English language is certainly functional for talking about business and air traffic control in most parts of the world.  So certain aspects of culture can transcend culture, either because there is something similar in both cultures, or because a roughly equivalent concept can be carved out of a group of concepts, and function in translation.  It's also conceivable that culture can change, but that is controversial because the norm is almost certainly that cultures change very slowly.  An individual, however, can change, and even a whole group of people can adopt a new culture, or (controversial again) a hybrid culture.  Certainly there are people who are truly bi- or even poly-lingual.  But absolute fluency almost certainly requires being raised in that culture from day one.  Some cultures, like the United States, can be very welcoming of people from other cultures, as long as they pick up their trash and generally follow our written laws, we happily tolerate their odd behaviors until they assimilate...even if they are Canadian.

The complexity of the question, 'What is culture?' is further muddied by the notion that there are cultural groups with fuzzy lines between them, sometimes marked with war, geography, new languages, new religions, new political entities, and now, new tools for communication.

There is a culture in the Amazon Jungle in Brazil where, when a person wants to stop talking at night and go to a separate hut, instead of saying "good night" or "sleep tight," they say, "Don't sleep, there are snakes!"  And that is the title of a wonderful book I read recently about this particular tribe and a missionary's attempt to learn their language over a period of twenty years of immersion.  If you like thinking about the question, "What is culture?" or have ever wondered why anyone would suggest that culture is mutually incomprehensible, then this is the book for you.  It's very well written, it's fun, and it's full of cultural zingers.  Like that the Pirahã (the cultural group he lived with) don't have numbers at all.  It's stunning.  They also won't talk about a memory or story of any kind unless the person who witnessed it is still living.  This even applies to dreams.  They hardly make anything that we would call art, and everything they make seems to be intentionally impermanent.

If a culture has many simularities to our culture, it's quite possible for us to convince ourselves that we understand what is happening in that other culture, we may even acquire a new concept like "wuwei" from the Chinese to help explain their behavior.  But when the simularities are few it becomes more obvious that we are almost always peering at another culture through the lens of our culture.  Anyway, I recommend it!  I would also recommend it as a teaching tool for inspiring students to think about the nature of culture.

Don't Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett.  (Pantheon, 2008)