Straight and Crooked-Heads: An Amazonian Journey Beyond Non-Sense

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Pirahã Homeland
Pirahã Homeland

Among many, rooted, local, indigenous people, all over the world, the norm is for people to speak 4 or 5 different languages. This may sound surprising to city folk, but living in long-rooted, rural communities anywhere in the world one soon becomes aware of how indigenous languages change radically with changes in environment. To be autochtonous is to literally “have a self made of Earth.” As the Earth changes, so does the Human Shape and Expression of those made from that part of Earth. Throw in marauding armies from empires enslaving people to mystico-politico non-sense and things get even weirder. What does all this have to do with straight and crooked-heads?

This one’s a fun one. Come for the ride.

In the Amazon, and much of Brazil, Paraguay and the Eastern Andes the language of the Tupí-Guaraní is spoken among many non-Guaraní indigenous People as a trade language. Most Peoples speak a number of the languages of their neighbors who are often allies, enemies, and/or marriage partners or all the former at the same time. There are even Peoples who are strictly exogamous, only marrying people from outside their language group. In their malocas, which are huge communal, thatch-roofed homes, many different languages are spoken by people from different Peoples who come together to form another People.

One People, whom the Brazilians call the “Pirahã,”  refuse to speak any other languages for one very particular reason. They call themselves “straight-headed People” a very direct reference to how they use their intelligence. To put it succinctly, the Way of Being of the Pirahã has everything to do with having their head on straight.

They refuse to speak the language of “crooked-heads.” The difference between straight and crooked-headedness is critical to their way of being and an important reason why they haven’t been assimilated. They just refuse to speak the literal non-sense that so many of us take for granted. I’m going to quote a “story of two tribes” by Frederick Mann contained in a compilation I recommended in A World in Word Only. It illustrates clearly the difference between someone who uses their head in a straight way, and others who can be twisted into crooked-headed nonsense. Then we’re going to see how this plays out among real people.

Two Tribes

Consider two different isolated tribes somewhere in the jungles of South America. Call them Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Each has its unique language with its own structure. The language of Tribe 1 (Language 1) tends to be very literal. A man who fishes, for example, is called “man-who-fishes.” The same man, while sleeping, is called “man-who-sleeps”; while talking, “man-who-talks”; while running, “man-who-runs”; while eating, “man-who-eats”; while writing, “man-who-writes”; while making a chair, “man-who-makes-chair”; while giving orders, “man-who-gives-orders”; etc. In Language 1, distinctions are made between different kinds of words: “Thing-words,” “Do-words,” “How-words,” “Story-words,” “Funny-words,” “Order-words,” “Panic-words,” “What-words,” “Who-words,” “Why-words,” “When-words,” “Where-words,” etc. High-level abstractions are rare in language 1. To the people of Tribe 1, any word that doesn’t refer to something physically perceivable, is highly suspect. Their test for reality is physical.

The language of Tribe 2 (Language 2) is very different. A man who obtains his wherewithal mostly by fishing, is called “fisherman.” (This system of nomenclature would seem absurd to the people of Tribe 1 — how can you call someone a “fisherman” when he is not fishing, but sleeping?) Language 2 contains many high-level abstractions — like “happiness.” People from Tribe 2 can talk for hours about “happiness.” (To someone from Tribe 1, this would be incomprehensible — they only talk about “woman-who-is-happy” while she is happy, and “woman-who-is-sad” while she is sad. The notion that you could separate “happiness” from a real person being happy, and talk about “happiness” as if it existed by itself, would be completely unthinkable to someone from Tribe 1.)

To the people from Tribe 2, any word being used is automatically assumed to be part of existence, otherwise people wouldn’t use it. (To someone from Tribe 1, the word “existence” would be a meaningless absurdity, because in their mentality only particular objects exist.) In Tribe 2, the test for reality is agreement. If other people agree with a word and the way it seems to be used, then that word is automatically accepted as valid and useful.

One day a strange man arrives at the place where the people of Tribe 1 live. They ask him: “Who you?” He: “I King.” They: “Your name King?” He: “No; my name John.” They: “Why call self King if name John?” He: “I special person, agent of God.” They: “You look different but not special; who God?” He: “God creator of world.” They: “Where God?; How create world?” He: “God everywhere; God all-powerful.” They: “How we see God?” He: “Can’t see God.” They: “You speak crazy.” He: “No; I special; I show you.” Whereupon the stranger performs various tricks like apparently making objects appear and disappear. They: “You clever man-who-tricks.” He: “I special; I King.” They: “You speak funny; you clever John-who-tricks.” He: “I King; my word law.” They: “What law? — special word?” He: “Yes; my word law — you must obey.” They: “Ah! You mean order-word!” He: “Yes; I King; I make law.” They: “No; you speak order-word?” He: “Yes; I special.” They: “What special? — Anybody speak order-word?” He: “You not understand.” They: “No.”

Eventually John-the-stranger gives up trying to convince the people of Tribe 1 that he has a “special status” and that his words are different from the words of anyone else — so he leaves, to search for more gullible and impressionable victims elsewhere…

For many days and nights he trudges through the jungle before discovering the people of Tribe 2. They: “Who you?” He: “I King.” They: “Your name King?” He: “No, my name John.” They: “Why call self King if name John?” He: “I special person, agent of God.” They: “You look different; what God?” He: “God creator of world.” They: Where God?; How create world?” He “God everywhere; God all-powerful.” They: “Show special?” Whereupon the stranger performs various tricks like apparently making objects appear and disappear. They: “You King, agent of God.” He: “Yes, my word law.” They: “What law?” He: “Law special word of God through me; you must obey.” Whereupon the people of Tribe 2 bow down and kiss the feet of John — they do not habitually test abstractions against reality, so they readily accept John-the-stranger as their “King” and his word as “law.” Thereafter all he has to do to subjugate, control, and dominate them, is open his mouth…Frederick Mann

People who speak different languages fluently begin to appreciate how profoundly all kinds of our perceptions, even our “personality”, are derivative of the language we are using and “living in,” at a particular moment. But those of us who speak a number of languages that are all from the Indo-European languages, may have difficulty imagining how profoundly different non-Indo-European languages, and the relationship to the world that they establish, can be. This offering is about a very, very interesting encounter between a Christian missionary who went to “evangelize” some indigenous people who are very deliberate and adamant about “speaking with their heads on straight.” Learning to speak with these People who do not cater to non-sense, which is to say, “words with no connection to sense-able reality” was a wake-up call for the missionary, and wake up he did.

With that background let’s introduce the Pirahã, a name which the Brazilians who pretend to be “the Brazilian Government” – to use a term crooked-headed people fall for and get swindled by, predictably – cooked up for a People who know themselves as “straight-headed” People. Although the Pirahã are surrounded by many other Peoples who have also had contact with the colonial invaders for more than 4 centuries, and been largely assimilated into modern versions of imperial slave-making culture, the Pirahã have not for one simple reason: their language makes them immune to second-hand non-sense!

To get clear on what I mean by “second-hand non-sense” please review What is Lying?in short, it is pretending to “know” something about “the world” because you heard or read it second-hand. In the language of straight-headed People, like the Pirahã, this is linguistically impossible, and will immediately disqualify what a person says.


Pirahã has an extremely advanced series of prefixes and suffixes that allow every word to be expressed with, literally, over 10,000 different nuances! When I speak of “attention” in my articles, few of us have even the remotest sense of how potentially fine-tuned our human attention can be. Pirahã is not only a spoken language, it is also hummed and whistled.

When people from Western, imperialized cultures speak of “what’s up with humanity” few of us have even the slightest inkling of how little we represent “humanity.” Some of us, however few, will consider other varieties of human experience: this is such an invitation, so that we can learn something, and perhaps live more vitally and creatively with reality.

For the Pirahã, sensibility is key to “having your head on straight.” The lack of it basically qualifies someone as “one who speaks with a crooked head” or, to use our vernacular, “a peddler of bullshit.”

One of the suffixes that is absolutely key to speaking Pirahã determines how the speaker knows what he is talking about, in order of decreasing credibility:

  • S/he experienced it directly.

  • S/he deduced it from evidence seen directly.

  • S/he heard it from someone who is known to both the speaker and the listener.

Needless to say, reading something only in a book, or hearing something third or fourth hand by way of someone completely unknown to us is of absolutely no interest to Pirahã People.

Enter Daniel Everett…

Daniel Everett grew up in Southern California and, while in high school, fell in love with a young Christian woman who had grown up in a missionary family in the Amazon. Daniel became an evangelical Christian and married his high school sweetheart. After high school, he went to missionary language school, where he excelled. He wanted to live out the missionary adventure that his wife had grown up living in the Amazon, with his growing family, “bringing salvation” to people who “didn’t yet know Jesus.”  The phrases in quotes, in the last sentence, formed the crux of the encounter between straight and crooked-headed people, in this case, the Pirahã and Daniel Everett.

Daniel was so gifted at learning languages that, when he completed his language studies and was looking for a missionary effort to pursue in the Amazon, he was assigned to missionize a People whose language very few people had ever learned, due to its difficulty, and among whom missionizing efforts had been surprisingly difficult; the Pirahã.

One of the great challenges in missionizing the Pirahã was their peculiar refusal to speak other languages, including Portuguese, Tupí-Guaraní, or any of the languages of their neighbors which they considered to be “crooked-headed speaking.” As a result there was no way to learn a word in Pirahã by comparing it to another word in another language.  This made learning their language very slow, tedious, and full of detours.  In the case of the Pirahã, this amounted to what was not a mere linguistic exercise.  It actually challenged a learner to “get their head on straight” and come into a very different relationship to reality than what we generally take for granted in imperial cultures where all kinds of bullshit proliferates.

Daniel Everett describes that challenge, in his book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.  It took him several years to learn the Pirahã words for “one” and “two.” Several years later, he realized that the Pirahã had no words for “one” and “two,” something that is inconceivable to people who live in a “Tribe 2” “reality,” as most of us do.

The Tale of Daniel Everett and the Pirahã is fascinating. It’s a real-life example of the “Two Tribes” tale above, but with far more subtlety. I’ll let Daniel tell his own tale of how the Pirahã helped him to get his own head on straight and stop talking crooked-headed non-sense. It’s a fascinating tale of a white guy who learned something from People indigenous to the Americas.

Instead of just covering the Americas with more literal, imperial non-sense, he dis-covered the Americas, and found “salvation” from his own non-sense.

In learning how to speak as “straight-headed People” speak, it became impossible for Daniel Everett to continue to speak as “crooked-headed People” speak, at least with the Pirahã. It’s a fascinating tale of a missionary who learned to speak Truth-FULLY, and to quit lying to himself and others. It’s also a tale of the price one pays, even with one’s own family, when one chooses to quit bending our knees in mystified reverence to sanctimoniously sanctified lies.

Now, some of you, in reading thus far, may jump to the conclusion that the pointing here is “about Christianity” and since, perhaps, some of you already reject “Christianity,” you may think that “you’ve already learned the lesson.” But Daniel Everett’s story shows how the same dynamics are at play in the “academia” of crooked heads.

Here the tale of Daniel Everett takes twists and turns in the land of “crooked-headed academia” that also confront Everett’s hard-won skills at “speaking with a straight head” just as surely among the priesthood of academia’s false “education” as it did among the priesthood of false religions. So there is far more to discover about “crooked-headed speaking” here than a reductive conclusion about “religion,” and other such easy conclusions we reach almost automatically out of our deep programming and with little attention to the rich contexts and consequences of reality.

During Everett’s time in Brazil he not only lived, learned, and unlearned (a very necessary component of true learning) among the Pirahã. He also pursued graduate studies, in Brazil, in linguistics, eventually earning a Ph.D. and recognition in the field as his work brought his learning with the Pirahã to “academia.” This, too, upset the very “Tribe 2” mentality governing the very imperial institution of “academia” and its “Tribe 2” “grand priest” of “modern linguistics,” Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s insistence on defining “humanity” and “language,” because he hatched up some theory that reality is supposed to conform to, EVEN WHEN IT DOESN’T, set Daniel Everett up for confrontation with the priesthood of quackademia and its insistence on imposing foregone “expert conclusions” on reality.

The story of Daniel Everett’s learning and unlearning is far more fascinating and revealing than one might surmise upon a first listening. True Students – those who bring application and care to their apprenticeship in reality – will find a rich jungle of trails to pursue on their own into the varied textures and dimensions of their experience, and the possibility of unrecognized textures, dimensions and nuances to be discovered and lived far beyond the Sacred Cow Corral of “Tribe 2” imperial mystification into literal sense-LESS-ness.

Here’s Daniel Everett telling his own story which is not only fascinating, but funny. Enjoy!


2 Responses

  1. Roberta

    Caro amico, thank you very much for the interesting article and the so affable and effervescent talk of Daniel Everett! There is a sort of relief in knowing that exist in our planet communities of such happy people, living simply and naturally what so many philosophies and though across millenniums all around the world ever tried to teach, the natural state of consciousness of the ‘hic et nunc’. Yes, the dimension of the languages is fascinating… how many appeared and disappeared, bringing to light and then concealing so much knowledge. Revealed, sacred, symbolic, hidden, forbidden, mysterious, healing, sign languages, (it seems that many languages on Earth, each one reveling both the talent and the limit of its people, came from the Semitic Watan, based on astral correspondence – some says an heritage from Atlantis ? -‘al watan’ in Arabian means motherland, in Turkish, home…). Only in the Mediterranean area, many examples of still not deciphered evidence, in Crete the Phaistos Disc (that seems now partially decoded), the Rohonc Codex, in Hungary; the mythical language of the bird (that was in France the famous ‘langue verte’ of the Troubadours), existing in so many mythologies, maIntains not intelligible aspects. From the Babel division (representation of the lost of our true dimension? It seems that on other planets all living beings have a natural universal way of mutual comprehension) – thousands, maybe million of possibilities and attempts emerged, all trying to reconnect the man into his true dimension, expression of the heart intelligence. Thank you very much for letting us know this fascinating and unique peculiarities of the Amazon region! Warmly, Roberta

    • Journeyman O

      Cara Amica! All of your comments are huge invitations to further discovery and I THANK YOU! GRAZIE MILLE!. You GET what the Invitation here, and in Aliveness IS: to learn, to discover, to dare to touch, know, and delight in the Great Adventure that we have been invited to, as human beings for eons, and whose Doors are wide open to us, would we but get curious and see a little further than our own self-involvement.

      I offer you trailheads into the lands, the learning, the unlearning that I love, and you offer me Invitations to Discovery from your own Adventures and Trails. Among People rooted in Aliveness, THIS is what communication is all about: the Greater Adventure! The One that CONNECTS US to a Greater Unfolding and Attention.

      Your comments offer GEMS, PEARLS and Trail Maps that connect DIRECTLY to what I have written about and, more curiously, what I DON’T generally write about here, although it is my MAIN, personal topic of study having to do with the Ancient Wisdom systems. All of this from the LAND and Ancestries that surround and inhabit you! DELIZZIA!

      YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!

      I am delighted to discover that the Troubadours had their own bird language. How beautiful! But then, how can we sing to LOVE if we do not sing to THE LOVERS OF LIVING AND IN THEIR LANGUAGE?! I assume you caught the part where the Pirahã language can be whistled in the forest and the language can also be hummed.

      HAHA, your commentary is so rich that now I’m off to other adventures. I will be CELEBRATING YOU all along the Way! Ti Celeb¡RO! O

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