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Photo illustration of professor Dan Everett reimagined as Indiana Jones, wearing a tan fedora and khaki shirt
Bentley’s Dan Everett, Trustee Professor of Cognitive Sciences, has been called “the closest thing we have to a real-life Indiana Jones.” (Photo illustration by Chris Schluntz)

An internationally recognized linguist, anthropologist and philosopher, Dan Everett has been hailed as “the closest thing we have to a real-life Indiana Jones.”  

During a distinguished career spanning nearly 50 years — the last 14 of them at Bentley, where the current Trustee Professor of Cognitive Sciences and former Dean of Arts and Sciences is a member of both the Sociology and Global Studies departments — Everett has never shied away from controversy. Whether defending himself from oversized reptiles in the Amazon rain forest or igniting a longstanding intellectual “feud” with Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor emeritus widely regarded as the “father of modern linguistics,” Everett has demonstrated time and again that scholarly pursuits can also be surprisingly scintillating.  

Read on to learn more about this leading linguist and beloved Bentley professor: 

#1. He began his career as a Christian missionary.

Everett discovered a love for linguistics through his evangelical work, which required him to translate the Bible into native languages. After graduating from the Moody Bible Institute in 1975 with a diploma in international studies, he went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in linguistics from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), a public research university in São Paulo, Brazil.  

In 1977, a 26-year-old Everett arrived in Brazil with wife, Keren, and their three young children to bring the gospel to the Pirahã [pee-da-HAN], a small community of Indigenous hunter-gatherers living along the banks of the Maici River. Over the span of three decades, he spent a total of 10 years living with them, which he recounts in his book “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle.” 

Photo credit: Martin Schoeller

Dan Everett sits with members of the Pirahã, an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian rain forest. He holds a microphone to record the speakers' language.
A Pirahã man sits in a canoe on the Maici River in the Amazon rain forest. Submerged in the water next to him is Dan Everett, with only his head visible above the

#2. He was attacked by an anaconda while living in the remote Amazon jungle.

Living in the Brazilian rainforest challenged Everett and his family both mentally and physically. The frustratingly slow process of learning Pirahã was compounded by the oppressive heat and humidity and the formidable local wildlife, both aquatic (piranhas, caimans, electric eels) and terrestrial (mosquitoes, jaguars, giant millipedes). 

Early on, Everett’s new neighbors — drunk on cachaca (sugarcane rum) and egged on by a Brazilian river trader — tried to kill him, and his wife and elder daughter nearly died from malaria. On another occasion, a 30-foot anaconda tried to board their riverboat; Everett repelled the reptile by buzzing it with the outboard motor’s propellers.

Photo credit: Martin Schoeller

#3. He’s prominently featured in the new Nat Geo documentary “The Mission.”

Though he entered the Amazon rain forest a confident Christian, Everett left it an unapologetic atheist. He recounts his experience with “deconversion” in the critically acclaimed film from National Geographic, which explores the fate of John Chau, a Christian missionary killed in 2018 during an attempt to convert the isolated, Indigenous residents of North Sentinel Island.  

“The Mission” is currently streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.  

Illustration courtesy National Geographic.

Illustration of a light-skinned, shirtless young man sitting in a yellow kayak and holding a large orange fish above his head. In front of him, standing ankle-deep in the turquoise waters that surround a sandy shore, are four dark-skinned men wearing green loincloths.
Dan Everett talks with a Pirahã man, his wife and their children: a young boy and an infant.

#4. He’s one of only a handful of Westerners fluent in Pirahã.

Pirahã is incredibly difficult to learn, Everett says, because it’s unlike any other living language. In addition to being tonal (i.e., the meaning of a word is dependent on the speaker’s pitch and intonation), the language lacks specific terms for colors and numbers, as well as words to convey historic events that predate the speaker’s lived experiences. Everett also noted the absence of recursion, or “nesting” clauses and phrases within each other to create increasingly complex sentences — a discovery that called into question Noam Chomsky’s previous assertion of a “universal grammar.”

Photo credit: Ted Gibson

#5. Noam Chomsky called him a fraud.

Everett’s 2005 paper in the journal Current Anthropology provided a definitive look at Pirahã grammar — and ignited a firestorm of controversy within the academic community. His findings challenged the influential theory of universal grammar advanced by Chomsky, which asserts that humans possess unique and innate linguistic abilities and that all languages share similar properties. According to one assessment, Everett’s arguments were the linguistic equivalent of “saying that Einstein got it wrong on relativity.”

Chomsky and his supporters responded by discrediting Everett’s scholarship. “I’ve been called all kinds of names: an exploiter, a liar, unethical,” Everett says, noting Chomsky famously characterized him as a “charlatan” in a Brazilian newspaper. The vitriol surprised Everett, as he’d enjoyed a cordial relationship with — and occupied an office adjacent to — Chomsky in 1984, when Everett spent a year at MIT as a visiting scholar.  

Composite photo featuring a headshot of Dan Everett on the left-hand side and a headshot of Noam Chomsky on the right.
Cover of book "From Fieldwork to Linguistic Theory: A Tribute to Dan Everett," published after the event of the same name held at MIT.

#6. MIT celebrated his scholarship with “A Tribute to Dan Everett” last June.

MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences honored Everett with a day-long symposium, “From Fieldwork to Linguistic Theory: A Tribute to Dan Everett,” on June 8, 2023. Spearheaded by Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive sciences and linguistics at MIT and director of the university’s Language Lab, the event brought together scholars from around the globe for a series of sessions devoted to Everett’s own research and the successive studies it inspired. A forthcoming book, which takes the symposium’s name as its title, shares 15 scholarly articles released in conjunction with the tribute event. 

#7. He’s the focus of the 2012 documentary “The Grammar of Happiness.”

The film, which originally aired on the Smithsonian Channel, examines Everett’s relationship with the Pirahã and how his understanding of their culture and language affected him personally and professionally. According to the production company, Green Planet Films, the documentary “interweaves the tale of Everett’s return to the Pirahã with the story of his personal journey since the ’60s — from drug-taking musician to evangelical missionary to rabblerousing academic ... [and] explores whether one man’s journey into the heart of the Amazon can redefine our understanding of human language.” 

“The Grammar of Happiness” is available on Kanopy. 

Closeup photo of two young male members of the Pirahã community, with "The Grammar of Happiness" superimposed over the photo in white text.
Composite photo featuring a photo of Tom Wolfe in his signature white suit and the cover of his book "The Kingdom of Speech."

#8. His feud with Chomsky inspired Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Kingdom of Speech.”

Award-winning author and journalist Tom Wolfe, equally celebrated for his novels (“Bonfire of the Vanities”) and non-fiction (“The Right Stuff”) became an unlikely champion of Everett’s. In his 2016 book, “The Kingdom of Speech,” Wolfe presents Everett as a plucky David to Chomsky’s overbearing Goliath, invoking (and invalidating) Charles Darwin and evolution to advance Everett’s own theory of language as a cultural tool stemming from humans’ need to establish meaning and community. Everett appears in the new documentary, “Radical Wolfe,” hailed by Variety as a “lively tribute to the writing, and daring,” of the provocative and influential author.

“Radical Wolfe” is now streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Tom Wolfe photo: National Endowment for the Humanities

#9. He’s the author of 18 books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

After a series of books devoted to Pirahã grammar and linguistic fieldwork, Everett published the critically acclaimed “Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes,” offering personal reflections of his time in the Amazon alongside his linguistic discoveries; the book was selected as one of “The Best Books of 2009” by National Public Radio and an “editor’s choice” of the London Sunday Times. 

Additional books addressing broader themes of language and culture — “Language: The Cultural Tool” (2012), “Dark Matter of the Mind” (2016) and “How Language Began” (2017) — soon followed. Everett is currently at work on two new publications exploring the life and legacy of Charles Sanders Pierce, a 19th-century scientist and philosopher he views as “The American Aristotle.” 

Photo collage featuring covers from 10 of Dan Everett's published books.

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