Here is the full transcript of Daniel Everett’s talk titled “Wisdom from Strangers” at TEDxPenn conference.
Famed linguist Daniel Everett embarked on a mission to convert the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon to Christianity, intending to translate the Bible and teach them about heaven. Upon arrival, he encountered a culture with a unique language and lifestyle, challenging his own beliefs and comfort zone. Everett’s attempts to introduce concepts of Christianity were met with skepticism by the Pirahã, who questioned the veracity of his teachings due to their reliance on empirical evidence.
Through his experiences, Everett learned that the Pirahã’s language lacked numbers and their descriptions of colors were situation-dependent, reflecting their immediate experience principle. His efforts to change the tribe’s beliefs led him to question his own, ultimately resulting in his conversion to atheism. Everett’s journey transformed him from a missionary into a linguist and anthropologist, appreciating the value of understanding and respecting diverse cultures. He advocates for the importance of exposing oneself to different ways of life to foster learning and innovation, underscoring the profound impact of the Pirahã on his life.
Listen to the audio version here:
I am a very happy failure. Forty years ago, I took off to the Amazon to convert a tribe of Indians called the Pirahã to Christianity. I was going to translate the Bible for them. I was going to tell them about the fact that they don’t need to fear death, that they’re going to go to heaven after they die, and contribute my life in exchange for their happiness. That was my goal.
So we boarded up this small Cessna single-engine aircraft in December of 1977, and I was going to see these people for the first time. I had some anxiety. I was excited. I didn’t know what I was going to find. And we took off, and two hours later, we landed on this small jungle strip in the middle of the Amazon.
And the first thing that I realized was I was very airsick. And we opened the plane doors, and we were surrounded by dozens of Pirahãs talking to us in a language that I couldn’t make out a single syllable, asking me questions, pulling on me. And I picked up a stick off the ground, and I said, “This is a stick.” And they said, “Eh?” And I dropped it, and they said, “Eh? He miget kalvi.”