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The Grammar of Happiness DVD

NOV 28 2017 UPDATE:
Daniel Leonard Everett is an American linguist and author best known for his study of the Amazon Basin’s Pirahã people and their language. His new book How Language Began: the Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention was published November 7, 2017. Everett’s previous book is DARK MATTER OF THE MIND, was published in Nov 2016.  Green Planet Films created an NTSC DVD with SDH subtitles for educational distribution for a film about his understanding of the Pirahã people and their language, called  The Grammar of HappinessNTSC DVD is now available.

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Congratulations to the film makers of The Grammar of Happiness for winning the 2012 Science Media Award for Best Human and Social Sciences Program (sponsored by Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education) . This documentary explores whether one man’s journey into the heart of the Amazon can redefine our understanding of human language.

Content from Essential Media and Entertainment

The 52′ documentary was Produced, Co-Directed and Co-Written by Essential Media’s Michael O’Neill, Co-Directed by Randall Wood and Executive Produced by Chris Hilton for ABC Australia, Smithsonian Channel (US) and Arte France.

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 colours and numbers, nor any fiction, art, or memories of their predecessors.

Daniel Everett

Daniel Everett engaging with the Pirahã

According to Everett, the Pirahã shun the past and the future in favour 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 learnt 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?

Essential Media will follow Everett as he sets out to gather evidence to support his controversial theories.

THE GRAMMAR OF HAPPINESS will interweave 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…


The Science Media Awards were launched this year by the Jackson Hole Film Festival to recognize the outstanding media that best illustrates the wonders of science to a broad audience. This year’s entries included 280 filmsentering more than 450 categories to compete for 18 special awards. More than 80 international judges screened an aggregated 1500+ hours in order to determine the finalists. The 2012 award winners were selected by a distinguished panel of judges preceding the three-day industry conference hosted at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science September 5-7.

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4 Responses to “The Grammar of Happiness DVD”

  1. Denise Cordner #

    I watched this documentary and it was very eye opening. Why is the scientific community so afraid of the possibility that their belief’s may be wrong and that there may be another truth? What does this mean to them? I also must question Noam Chomsky’s statement that the electronic research done to explore this culture’s language – to find evidence to prove it is not recursive – is invalid because the method of electronic research has never been done before and therefore cannot be proven to be valid…what? It is not valid because it has never been done before? Is that logical? I am appalled that a linguist would make such a statement. His quotes in the documentary are nothing more than “It is not true because I say it is not true.” How sad that in order to prove Dan was wrong (which I doubt he was) the government had to change this unique and isolated culture, to discredit Dan’s observations…instead of allowing the reality to be the reality, the government changed the reality. How very sad indeed.

    January 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm
  2. Denise Cordner #

    Very interesting, eye-opening, and in the end, somewhat disheartening documentary about the study of language, the existance and destruction of unique cultures, and the fears underlying great minds.

    January 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm
  3. Simon Karl #

    I was introduced to Everett’s work in a second language class at University and after having read “Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes” and watching “The Grammar of Happiness” the highlight was definitely a personal interview we had in class with Mr. Everett last week. What inspired me most during the interview was that Mr. Everett’s face lightened up whenever we asked a question which was related to the Pirahã, a tribe in the Amazon he has lived with as a missionary for over thirty years.

    In this comment I want to reflect on the close relationship between the Pirahã language and culture and how Everett learned the language by understanding the cultural concepts of the tribe.
    An important part of understanding Pirahã is the Immediacy of Experience principle which means that utterances in Pirahã contain only assertions directly related to the moment of speech, either experiences, seen, overheard, deducted by the speaker or as witnessed by someone alive during the lifetime of a speaker. This principle is also reflected in the language in the way that Pirahã lacks past and future tense. Though they have an understanding of the past and the future their practical lifestyle and their understanding of the world has no need for expressing utterances in the past or future tense. A good example which shows the Immediacy of Experience principle embedded in a story is mentioned in Everett’s book, when a Pirahã encounters and kills a jaguar. The story itself contains many repetitive elements and there is no complicated sentence structure as we’re being introduced to the principle characters of the story immediately. Daniel Everett describes many instances in “Don’t Sleep…”, where the Pirahã saw some spiritual entity in the jungle that could not be seen by him. The Pirahã believe in spirits and talk about dreams as if they were real events and the only condition that has to be met is to believe in these things and talk about them, as long as you’ve experienced them yourself.
    Another important and interesting feature of the language is that it operates on four channels. The first channel is hum speech which is used to signal intimacy, privacy and disguise. Daniel Everett experiences the second channel, the yell speech when Pirahã were yelling at a long distance on a rainy day. The musical speech is used for spiritual communication and to add new information 1). The last channel, the whistle speech can be seen in the beginning of “The Grammar of Happiness” where we can see Pirahã using whistling in the jungle to communicate without chasing away their prey.
    The immediacy of experience principle as well as the different channels Pirahã uses clearly indicates the interconnection between their language and culture and their survival in the Amazon. It was essential for Daniel Everett to understand the cultural ideas of the Pirahã, which are so different from the westernized world, in order to learn their language and be part of their community.

    1) http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003175.html

    April 10, 2013 at 5:22 pm
  4. The images are incredibly beautiful and they show the environment in which this language came to exist.

    August 25, 2014 at 5:03 am

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