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The Grammar of Happiness

The Grammar of Happiness: Rethinking Universal Grammar

When Daniel Everett decided he wanted to be a Christian missionary, the first and last group he attempted to convert were the Pirahã people of the Amazon. Everett moved with his wife and three children to Brazil, and the land of the Pirahã, on the edge of the Maici River.

Following numerous attempts to convert the tribe, Everett made a groundbreaking discovery regarding basic human grammar and emotion which led him to convert his own spiritual beliefs, and stop practicing as a missionary to pursue his observations.

The Grammar of Happiness travels into the tribe of the Pirahã, a community disconnected from other civilizations. Living off of the bare Earth, the Pirahã hunt, gather, and fish for their food. Living in huts made out of trees and leaves, the only connection the Pirahã have to outside communities is clothing. They reject almost all outside influences.

What makes Everett so drawn to the Pirahã people is their form of communication. The Pirahã communicate through speech, humming, and whistling. After 30 years of studying the tribe and becoming fluent in Pirahã, Everett additionally concludes that the language lacks recursion- one of the main pieces of evidence which contribute to the theory of a Universal Grammar. After countless occurrences of disbelief to his claim that culture may have an effect on language, Everett travels back to the Pirahã to record his findings in The Grammar of Happiness and prove this theory.

To watch the film, click here

What makes The Grammar of Happiness so appealing is the level of action and suspense included in the film. At one point in the movie, Everett is banned from visiting the Pirahã people ever again. Additionally, the documentary includes various accounts of professional linguists bashing Everett’s claim that culture can affect language, and the Universal Grammar may not apply to all.

The Grammar of Happiness takes the audience on a 4-day boat trip to the Maici River, and goes inside the village. Furthermore, the film focuses on the Pirahã tribe by documenting interviews with the people and showing how the Pirahã spend their days on the sandy river shores. This film is extremely captivating because of Everett’s theory and how hard he works to prove his point. The Grammar of Happiness is also extremely educational because it shows an substantial amount of evidence which may disprove the theory of a Universal Grammar, opening a whole new venue for intellectual linguists.

The Pirahã tribe are only one example of a group of humans who don’t comply to current linguistic theories.  Today, Everett is a Professor of Linguistics, an author, and the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Watch The Grammar of Happiness to learn more about Everett’s discoveries and connections with the Pirahã.

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