Daniel Leonard Everett is an American linguist and author best known for his study of the Amazon Basin’s Pirahã people and their language. The Grammar of Happiness is a documentary that explores whether one man’s journey into the heart of the Amazon can redefine our understanding of human language.
In a remote river system in Brazil’s Amazon Basin live the last 300 members of the Pirahã tribe. To western eyes, they are some of the most remarkable humans on earth.
For 30 years, linguistics professor Daniel Everett, attempted to understand these people who he claims have no words for colors and numbers, nor any fiction, art, or memories of their predecessors.
According to Everett, the Pirahã shun the past and the future in favor of experiencing each day just as it is. They have consistently rejected all foreign influences and appear to be entirely happy that way.
Everett first met the Pirahã as a Christian missionary exploring the Amazon basin in the 1970’s. When he finally learned enough Pirahã to tell them about Jesus, Everett was asked whether he’d ever seen Him. They fell about laughing when he said no. Having converted no one, Everett was soon much less interested in Jesus than the people and language with whom he was now living.
With his detailed understanding of the near indecipherable Pirahã language – once described by the New Yorker as ‘a profusion of songbirds’, ‘melodic chattering’, and ‘barely discernible as speech,’ Dan re-invented himself as a linguist, grabbing headlines by challenging Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar.
In the world of linguistics, this is akin to saying that Einstein got it wrong on relativity.
Everett claims that Pirahã has no ‘recursion’ – the ability to build sentences in sentences, a characteristic regarded by Chomsky as the most fundamental of human language. It is our ability to ‘recurse,’ or so the orthodoxy goes, that sets human language aside from animal communication.
If the Pirahã don’t use recursion, then how could it be a fundamental part of a universal grammar embedded in our genes? And if the Pirahã don’t use recursion, then is their language – and, by implication, other languages – determined not by biology but by culture?
THE GRAMMAR OF HAPPINESS interweaves the tale of Everett’s return to the Pirahã with the story of his personal journey since the sixties – from drug taking musician to evangelical missionary to rabblerousing academic.
Is Everett right? Is he even credible?
The answer may well reshape thinking about what it means to be human…