Originally published on Van Winkle's (October 2015)
The phrase “good night” is ingrained in our cultural lexicon. These two words start out playing an essential role in early childhood by way of soothing and rhythmic classics such as Goodnight Moon and Good Night, Gorilla. They are often the last words we hear our parents whisper to us before we fall asleep.
Among adults, they’re taken for granted as a universal social signifier — a way to wish our friends and family a restful sleep, or a pleasantry upon our departure from a social evening out, no matter where in the world we are.
But in some cultures, no such words are spoken.
Where? And why?
In the language of one remote Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN), there are no words for “good night.” This anomaly was first noted by linguistics professor Daniel Everett in his fascinating book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. In fact, the title itself echoes the words used by tribe members before they settle down for sleep. As Everett describes it:
The Pirahãs say different things when they leave my hut at night on their way to bed. Sometimes they just say, “I’m going.” But frequently they use an expression… ”Don’t sleep, there are snakes.” The Pirahãs say this for two reasons. First they believe that by sleeping less they can “harden themselves,” a value they all share. Second, they know that danger is all around them in the jungle and that sleeping soundly can leave them defenseless.
Everett has since referenced a common feature of most languages worldwide, called phatic communication — words used to create sociability and good will. For instance, we say, Hello, how are you? to express our connection and recognition that we’re in a setting in which others exist and are a part of our lives. These phrases serve as pleasantries. The person saying How are you? doesn’t actually want a laundry list of your illnesses or ailments.
“The Pirahã lacks such expressions by and large,” Everett explains, though clearly “Don’t sleep, there are snakes,” while used half literally, is also being spoken half phatically.
Are their sleeping habits any different?
Indeed, their sleep pattern is unlike that in the modernized world. It’s common for tribe members to sleep for just an hour or two and then go about their activities, sleeping again when they get tired.
“During the night it is rare, though not unheard of, for the entire village to be silent,” Everett says. “Usually, there will be some sleeping and some playing, some talking, some laughing all night long. There simply are no culturally defined sleep periods among the Pirahã.”
Which could explain why it wouldn’t make sense to wish someone a good night if he or she were only lying down for a brief rest.
Are there any other cultures that dispense with these niceties?
According to Everett, another isolated Amazon tribe, the Banawa, as well as a handful of others, don’t have the equivalent words for “good night” in their language. And while it may be convenient to assume a lack of civilized sensibility, Everett says this isn’t the case. It’s just not important to them to say such things.
The Pirahã language is different in several other ways as well. “They have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no words for all, each, every, most or few — terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition.”
Everett told The New Yorker, “I think one of the reasons that we haven’t found other groups like this is because we’ve been told, basically, that it’s not possible.”
To us, “good night” is the only natural thing to say at day’s end, but different cultures and worldviews may require other words. In the case of the Pirahã, they’ve adopted more cautionary pleasantries.