Something Rotten

something rottenSomething Rotten, Jasper Fforde

We return to Thursday Next after little more than two years have passed since her adventures in the Well of Lost Plots. She’s had a successful, if brief, tenure as the Bellman running Jurisfiction in Book World, but now feels its time to head home, with her toddler, Friday, in tow. She still has a few things to take care of, such as the fact that her husband, Landen, is still eradicated in this time stream, Yorrick Kaine, an escapee from Book World, is poised to possibly take control of the country and is whipping up dangerous anti-Dutch sentiment, and her son should probably learn about the RealWorld. As if that wasn’t enough, she also has to deal with a host of William Shakespeare clones, a highly-skilled assassin known as The Windowmaker (a newspaper typo that stuck), a rogue Minotaur, and make sure the Swindon Mallet’s win their croquet game and fulfill St. Zvlkx’s seventh revealment, or else the Gloliath corporation can continue to rule the world.

Something Rotten is probably my favorite of the Thursday Next books. Fforde’s ability to keep so many disparate threads going is unparalleled (each of those plots up there has its own grouping of subplots—to win the croquet game they need help from the Neanderthals, but Thursday’s friend Stig can only convince the other Neanderthals to play if they go to the original cloning facility to find the gene sequence once again allowing them to reproduce, which entails sneaking across the Welsh border), and his world building is awe-inspiring. But much of my time reading the first two books was just trying to keep track of all of the different pieces. Fforde throws us into his books from the beginning with an expectation we’ll know what’s going on, and it takes a few books to really catch up on the rules about home-cloning, what’s going on in the Crimea, and just how the Toast Marketing Board fits into all this. Having finally more or less gotten myself acquainted with those bits, I was really able to immerse myself in this world.

Here we also see a bit of the darker side of this particular universe and Goliath’s actions, as they return to some of their original cloning facilities. It may seem odd to say we’re finally seeing a darker side—after all, they eradicated Thursday’s husband, have tried to take over all of book world, and killed more than a few people and characters—but the tone there has always been on the lighter side. For a short section it’s a bit more somber, and one can see the beginnings of the plan for the world of Shades of Grey.

Something Rotten shows off Fforde’s attention to detail and sense of humor to his best. This sort of world building can only really work if you’re 100% committed, and Fforde is throughout. Friday is learning to speak, but as a toddler can only speak Lorem ipsum for now. Hamlet is as moody as you’d expect. And there is more than one seemingly throwaway line at the beginning that ends up being crucial at the end, with clues sprinkled throughout the book. Nothing Fforde does is ever truly a throwaway line, and every character or action will follow the principle of Chekov’s gun, which is part of what makes his books such a delight to read. This isn’t the type of series you can just pick up and try to follow, but it is very much worth the effort to understand. Definitely one to sink your teeth into and laugh along the way.

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Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

don't sleepDon’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, Daniel Everett

In 1977, Daniel Everett and his family went to live with a remote Amazonian tribe to translate the Bible and convert the people. Instead, Everett came out an atheist and challenging all of the standards of linguistic orthodoxy. This is his story.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is part memoir, part scientific explainer, part anthropological study. Everett himself is quite an interesting character. He had an unstable and challenging childhood, but in high school met a girl, Keren, from an Evangelical, and former missionary, family. He fell for her, converted, and the two of them decided to also become missionaries. They joined a group called SIL International with a particular missionary tactic, dedicated to sending missionaries out to stay with uncontacted people, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Everett showed an amazing aptitude for languages, and by all accounts, even those who disagree with his theories, he is a uniquely gifted linguist. SIL noticed this and after their studies were complete he and his family were sent to live with the Pirahã (pronounced “Pee-da-han”), a remote tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, speaking a language that was connected to no known living language and that had stymied other translators they’d sent.

 

I remember Everett’s work making a bit of a splash when it first came out, even in traditional news sources. Well, okay, nerdy ones like NPR, The New Yorker, and The Economist, but still. Everett became the first outsider to be fluent in Pirahã, and, indeed, fluent in their culture. And here is where he began to challenge both traditional linguistics and, through his immersion in their culture and resistance to conversion, to lose his own Christian faith. It’s the linguistics part that got him the most attention. I am not a linguist, but will try to walk briefly through the debate.

The prevailing theory of linguistics, and practically the only one at the time of Everett’s studies, is that the basic structure of language is something that humans are born with. Looking at the similarities in languages, how all children acquire them automatically with no effort, at roughly the same ages, and how the complexities in our language are unique to humans and not to be found in other species that communicate, there is something specifically human about language and a ‘language center’ in our brain.

So far, this doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. Obviously, there’s something that makes us ‘different’. What starts to be a problem is that this theory, which originated with Noam Chomsky, holds that there are building blocks that will be found in absolutely every language, and that we can understand language best by studying these innate traits in very language. And that there is no need to correspond with culture or the society in which a language developed, because the same tools will be found in each. Like tenses, basic descriptive words, abstractions, and something called recursion, the ability to imbed one thought in another. An example would be, “The girl, who wore a red dress and was drinking coffee, entered the bookstore and browsed the mystery section.” In theory, you can use recursion to imbed almost infinite ideas and write Faulkner length sentences. According to Chomsky, this is one of the building blocks of human languages and must be part of a human language center, every language would have it.

And here is the problem, what made such a splash when Everett started publishing his work. The Pirahã do not have recursion. In their language, there is no way to write the above sentence. Instead, they would say, “There is a girl. She has a red dress. She was drinking coffee. She entered the bookstore. She looked at the mystery section.” Only they wouldn’t really say that, because the other key issue that Everett focused on in his linguistic and cultural studies is that the Pirahã don’t include abstract concepts.  And so they don’t have color words. They would say, “There is a girl. She is wearing a dress the color of ripe passion fruit.”

It seems like this element of recursion is a relatively small thing, but in fact, it was, and still is, controversial. Pirahã is the only language that doesn’t seem to have this. It also, as mentioned, doesn’t include abstract concepts, and so there are not descriptive words, such as colors, that exist unto themselves, only comparisons to other things. They do not have numbers other than one, two, a few, or many, something that they do share with a few other languages. Their tenses are limited, as they place an importance on immediate and personal experience, which is rather unique among culture as well. There are other pieces that make Pirahã a particularly challenging language. Pirahã also has very few phonemes (think the parts of a word that make syllables, every unique sound). Everett counts 11, the smallest known number. It’s also a highly tonal language, that can sound like singing, and indeed, much of the language can be communicated through whistling due to the importance of tones. And it is one of the few languages to have a male and female version—not male and female words like “la casa” and “los banos” the way many Latin languages do, but separate ways that a woman would talk and a man would talk. But while all of these make it a difficult language to learn and translate, it is the lack of recursion or abstraction that challenge existing theories.

The discussions on language were quite interesting. What Everett focused on, and what I was surprised to learn most Chomskyian linguists refuse to consider, is that culture informs language and language informs culture. What comes first can be a chicken of an egg question, but they both work with each other. If there isn’t an importance for something in a language, the people won’t have a word for it. And if there isn’t a word for it, people won’t identify it as important. This seems to me, as someone who’s done a good deal of social science work, as obvious, but apparently Chomsky’s emphasis on the linguistic center of the brain and commonality have suggested that language exists independent of other human experience and has nothing to do with culture. It seems as if it is a lone holdout in the sciences that hasn’t caught up to our post-Skinner world.

This book, however, goes beyond language. Everett focuses on how the lack of numbers, abstraction, tenses, etc. stem from a couple of unique aspects of the Pirahã. One of them is that they are fiercely isolationist. They have no interest in anything from an outside culture, and this includes missionaries. They trade with some individuals along the Amazon for liquor and a few other select items, but for the most part have no interest in anything brought by outsiders, including new languages, clothes, maths and sciences, or religions.

The other, as mentioned above, is their focus on immediate experience. They don’t dry fish or fruit or otherwise plan for the future (something that couldn’t exist in a northern culture, but works out in the tropics), they make planes when one comes to the village but otherwise don’t make art, they don’t have abstract words, such as colors, but would compare one thing to another—the color of a papaya, for instance, instead of pale green, and are one of the few cultures with no origin story. Everett says that when he would try to explain Jesus they would ask if he had seen Him, or if his friends had. When Everett said it was just passed down in books, they lost all interest.

Seeing how the Pirahã had no interest in Jesus or Christianity is what Everett to eventually lose his faith, and his marriage. His former wife Keren still lives in Brazil as a missionary. Everett, however, struggled on how to break through to the Pirahã and was ultimately struck by the simple fact that they didn’t seem to need Christianity, because they were fine without it, and so he turned away as well.

Don’t Sleep was incredibly interesting throughout, but I found that I had far more questions than answers in the anthropology type sections of the book than the linguistics. When describing his life with the Pirahã, Everett repeatedly says that they are the happiest people he’s ever met, which may well be true, and how wonderful their lives are. And he is clearly comfortable and at home in their life and culture, which shines through in the book. Where I think he breaks down is that he is constantly seeming to sell this life, again and again emphasizing how happy they are, how independent, how peaceful. Except that he also recounts how he watched a woman die in childbirth in the river alone because no one went to help her, independence being one of the traits of the tribe. And a harrowing story of how the tribe got drunk one night and talked about killing Everett and his family which was only averted because they didn’t realize how much of their language Everett had understood. Or the tale of one Pirahã woman who had married outside her tribe, and the other Pirahã had killed her husband and she had been forced to return. And again and again and again.

Everett tells us how happy and peaceful and content the Pirahã are, and then shows us the complete opposite. I don’t mean at all to suggest by this that the Pirahã are uniquely terrible or should be converted. Only that he seems to be somewhat blinded by his love of the culture and comfort in their society. A society that is probably on par with others in terms of misery and cruelty and violence—I mean, hey, we all have problems. I’ve since read that Everett has been criticized for being too close with the Pirahã to be truly independent in his field work, and I find that believable in terms of anthropology, although I’m not sure how much it would change his linguistic works or ability to translate.

All in all, though, while I question some of Everett’s conclusions or evaluations of the society, the book itself was fascinating on all levels. Everett is a skilled writer, and the topics here are ones that are incredibly unique and not often covered. He also, as mentioned above, touches on such a wide variety of topics that there is something for everyone, whether looking for linguistics, a travelogue, anthropology, or memoir. It’s stuck with me for a while, and that’s always a good quality in a book.