The Grammar Of Happiness follows the story of Daniel Everett amongst the extraordinary ‘unconvertible’ Amazonian Pirahã tribe, a group of indigenous hunter-gatherers whose culture and outlook on life has taken the world of linguistics by storm.
The Pirahã have no colours. No numbers. No words that denote time and controversially; no recursion, the ability to combine an endless number of ideas in a single sentence. Pirahã appears to be a culture that highly values immediate experience, disdains abstract thought and rejects the ways, technologies and languages of outsiders. Like St Augustine seeking God’s eternal present tense and Buddha teaching followers to find Nirvana in contemplation of the here and now, the Pirahã shun consideration of the past or future in favour of experiencing each day as it is.
As a young ambitious missionary three decades ago, Dan, a red-bearded towering American, decamped to the Amazon rain forest to save indigenous souls. His assignment was to translate the book of Mark into the tongue of the Pirahã, a people whose puzzling speech seemed unrelated to any other on Earth. What he learned during his time with the Pirahã led him to question the very foundations of his own deep beliefs.
As a ‘born again’ atheist, Dan divorced his devout Christian wife and became estranged from his children. Having lost faith and family, his new life is dominated by the desire to leave behind his legacy. Everett’s most controversial claim is that the Pirahã language lacks ‘recursion’ – the ability to build an infinite number of sentences within sentences, regarded by Chomsky-ists as perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of human language. It is our ability to use recursion, or so the orthodoxy goes, that sets human language aside from animal communication. If Everett’s claim that Pirahã lacks recursion can be proven, then many academics believe the case for Universal Grammar is severely undermined.
The Grammar Of Happiness interweaves the tale of Everett’s attempt to return to the Pirahã with the story of his personal journey since the sixties – from drug-taking musician to evangelical missionary to rabblerousing academic. It’s the adventurous tale of losing faith but finding happiness.
9:30pm Monday January 21 on ABC1