The Shakti Journal Exclusive Series:
A Journey through the Landscape of Language,
By Jen Isabel Friend
Relatively Speaking Part 1—Linguistic Reciprocity: How nature created language, and words create our world
At 10 years old I first heard the story of the tower of Babel, wherein the God of the Old Testament punishes humans for their hubris by cursing them to speak many languages. Unable to communicate with one another, they cast aside their collaborative endeavor of erecting a temple of shared knowledge and they scattered to the ends of the Earth.
The story seemed epically vindictive, as though in one axe fall long before I was even born, I’d been robbed of the chance to make friends with billions of people. But the truth of humanity’s linguistic origins is much more nuanced than this conveniently simple tale implies. Linguistic diversity did not begin with a patriarchal God, but rather its opposite—Mother Earth herself.
As Asutran naturalist Viktor Schauberger once said, “Fish don’t swim, they’re swum and birds don’t fly, they’re flown.” In the phenomenological view of language, humans didn’t begin to speak, they were spoken by the voices of the natural world that they inhabited. Within the multiplicity of language is intertwined the biodiversity of our planet and all of humanity’s ancient ancestries, cosmologies, practices of medicine and poetries of the soul.
How nature informs language
Linguist Maurice Merleau-Ponty believed that language arose spontaneously as a way of singing along with the animate earth around us. For thousands of generations, humans have evolved alongside animals, plants, rivers, oceans and winds. In answering the chattering birds and echoing the babbling brook, Merleau-Ponty proposed that human language derived directly from participation with nature. Thus the sounds and meanings of words formed in response to our natural surroundings.
While modern societies have largely come to regard the elements as inanimate forces, we have always communed with and been informed by the non-human elements of nature. For the Dogon tribe of Mali, for example, spoken language began as a “swirling garment of vapor and breath worn by the encompassing Earth itself.”
When the Shipibo people of the Amazon were asked how they knew how to combine Caapi vine with Chacruna leaves to alchemize the potent MAOI/DMT combination that is grandmother Ayahuasca medicine, the people responded, simply, “the plants told us”. And according to award-winning author Stephen Harrod Buhner, “All ancient and indigenous peoples said that they learned the uses of plants as medicines from the plants themselves… They insisted that the plants can speak to human beings if only human beings will listen and respond to them in a certain state of mind.”
Likewise, the Swampy Cree of Manitoba, the Inuit of the far North, and many other original peoples believe that animals first taught language to humans.(1) Thus in the earliest times, people and creature were able to converse.
In indigenous cultures it is commonly understood that human language is merely one voice in a larger discourse between lapping waves, rustled leaves and chirping crickets.
At 28 years old in Mexico, I sat in a Velada mushroom ceremony with a Mazatec Curandera, or traditional medicine woman. The Aztecs, Mazatecs, Nahua and other indigenous peoples of the Central American region have been working with mushrooms, called Teonanácat and considered “flesh of the gods”, for thousands of years.
Undoubtedly their languages evolved in symbiosis with the mushroom ceremonies and was informed by the synaesthetically communicative medicine itself. Seated in a dark thatch-roofed hut, as soon as the Curandera began singing in her ancient Mazateca language I was propelled into the full force of the entheogenic journey.
The harmony of psilocybin and speech was undeniable. It was as though every quick staccato syllable she spoke called directly to the mushrooms. With every “hé” and “ xé” that peppered her ancient speech and song as often as punctuation, the visions responded in kind to the language in which they were called.
I felt a similar phenomenon when sitting in Hikuri ceremony with the Huicholes. The medicine seemed to listen and respond to songs in the Huichol language much more quickly and strongly than Spanish or other songs played around the fireplace. The innate language of the plant kingdom and the origins of indigenous languages grew up together through the millennia.
Plants maintain access to genetic memories dating back to prehistory, giving them immediate access to timeless wisdom. When we listen, when they intoxicate us with their teachings, we can remember what they know. We can be humbled and grow. As Terence McKenna said, “Nature is alive and talking to us. This is not a metaphor.”
In fact, there are folks so adept at listening to the dialects of nature that even the breezy speech of evergreens carries many meanings. I know of a man in Oregon who could be driven blindfolded into any grove in the coastal forest and, just by listening, tell you exactly what species of tree he stood under— whether Sitka spruce or Western Red Cedar. He could even differentiate between Douglas Fir and Grand Fir, merely from the sound of their needles rustling in the wind.
This level of attunement, I believe, is our birthright as children of the Earth. But it’s an inheritance that we’ve sacrificed at the altar of succinct, civilized tongues. Our senses no longer dance in the dynamic animism of living environments, but now glean meaning from the static surfaces of pages and screens. Attuned to electronic buzz, we fall deaf, assuming the clouds to be silent and making the mountains mute. Without a language rooted in listening, we lose the ears to truly hear.
How language Informs our Experience
This idea of linguistic relativity suggests that our primary language influences our minds through what it allows us to think and what it hinders us from thinking. This was first proposed by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who wrote, “Not all observers are led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.” In other words, our whole map of existence is patterned not by what we see, but by how we think of and communicate about what we see.
Research into linguistic relativity shows that speakers of different languages are cognitively wired differently. In fact, renounced Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt considered this the “basic reason for all linguistic investigation.” Influenced by the ideas set forth by Humboldt, German linguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Regensberg Franz Von Kitshera writes in his 1975 ‘Philosophy of Language’(2):
“Given the mutual dependance of thought and word it becomes quite clear that the languages are not mere means to represent the truth already perceived, but, far more than that, they are the means to discover first of all the truth which had been unknown before. The differences between them are not mere differences of sounds and signs but differences of world views. This is the basic reason for all linguistic investigation.
“The sum of everything that is recognizable by man and which has to be explored by him is to be found in and among all the languages and it lies independently of them in the very center. However, man can only approach this purely objective domain according to his faculty for cognition and sensation, in a sub-jective way.”
Our perception of everything is almost entirely determined by the language we speak. We see, hear, and experience the world as we do because the linguistic habits of our community predispose us to interpret the world in a particular way, and in turn, act according to those interpretations.
Some of the ways that indigenous languages pattern the worldview of their speakers shed great light on the significance of linguistic relativity. Take the linguistic phenomenon of the “Hopi Time Paradox” for example. Time is ineffable to all mortals, regardless of what language they speak. But as with most abstractions, our relationship to time is largely determined by our ways of referencing it.
English speakers generally regard time as quantifiable segments—one minute, a day, a week—or chunks of experience that can be subdivided and planned rather than an ongoing flow. We treat it as a finite resource that can be saved, lost, or wasted. And we suffer the stress as a culture of quantifying the immeasurable.
But in the Hopi Language, time carries an entirely different lexicon. The Hopis experience time as an endless cycle in which there is no past and no future, but rather a continuous wheel circulating between manifest and unmanifest, or between what can and cannot be perceived.(3)
We could compare this to our ideas of past (what is known) and future (what is unknown), but the Hopi worldview acknowledges that both aspects are always present and existing currently. The unknown still lives in the present, but belongs to the a’ne himu, or “powerful something at the heart of nature”. These words describe the realm we might consider “future.” But for the Hopis it is also the place into which the known will eventually disintegrate.
So the past and future live together in a spirit world that thrums continuously. This is the sphere of timeless reality— an endless stream of forms manifesting from within the “heart of nature”, being shared in lived experience, and merging again with the a’ne himu when they pass from our awareness and return to subjectivity.
In this way, the experience of time is not governed by how long ago something happened, or by the drive to create something in the future. Instead, legends, origin stories and the as yet unmanifest somehow affect us all, right now. They coexist presently in the invisible realm just backstage, feeding the moment like an orchestra feeds music to the scenes unfolding on a theater stage.
Even other Western languages, by way of their syntax around time, have surprisingly far reaching impacts on the lifestyle of their speakers. Finnish, Estonian and German for example, which have no distinctive future tense, require the future to be described as an imperative of the present tense. Instead of, “We will go to school tomorrow,” one simply says, “We go to school tomorrow.” Instead of, “It will rain next week,” one says, “It rains next week.”
Even this seemingly minor difference in perception causes impressive shifts in psychology, including a 20% higher proclivity toward protecting the environment. Their respective countries also have stricter climate change laws. If the future is, at least grammatically, equivalent to the present, it forces us to become more conscientious about what we “are” experiencing tomorrow. If the future “will” always be a bridge to cross when we “will” get there, procrastination and deference are built into the cultural logos.
lInguistics and reality
Linguistic reciprocity shows up in countless ways, and the more you look the more significance it gleans. One of my favorite examples is the use of grammatical elements that make it extremely challenging, not to mention culturally reprehensible, to skew the truth or tell a lie. In fact, a whole quarter of languages thusly prioritize honesty by incorporating what linguists call an “evidentiality system.”
The evidentiality system is an obligatory conjugation that reflects how the speaker first came upon the information being stated. Inherent in the syntax itself is a structure and conscience that keeps one from conflating the truth.
Speakers of languages like Tuyuca, Fasu, and Western Apache are bound to evidence-based grammar that requires one to specify whether the information was witnessed or not witnessed, whether it is first-, second- or third-hand, if it is sensory and if so whether visual, auditory, olfactory, etc., and if it is inferential, hearsay, quoted or assumed.
If I were to tell you, “she had lunch with her grandmother,” my grammar tells you the gender of both people involved and implies past tense. But in an evidence-based language, the tense and conjugation of the same sentence would also tell you if I assumed they had lunch because I heard their conversation, smelled their food, or heard about it from a friend of a friend who saw it happen. Omitting proof references from the statement would result in a sentence as grammatically unnatural as “it lunch with it.”
I once heard a story of a man from a tribe in Africa whose language had no future tense. His existence was so fully immersed in the moment that when he was thrown in prison by colonial police for some minor infraction, he didn’t understand when they told him he would be released in just a few days. All he knew was that in this moment he was in a dark cell separate from the Earth. He died within the first two days.
To some extent, this field of research may forever remain a conundrum. Do we have difficulty conceptualizing things we don’t have the vocabulary for, or do we not have the vocabulary for these things because we can’t conceptualize them?
Of course the question is more complex than language alone— culture, environment and history play a huge role in the ways we think and communicate. But even this is a conundrum of its own, because hasn’t language and its specificities affected culture, and thus human history, just as much as anything else?
What can safely be said is that words have the power to shift our way of thinking and being in the world. They deeply influence the beliefs and behaviours of those who speak them and those who are spoken to. Far from being a curse from a damning God, linguistic diversity may be one of our greatest cultural resources and blessings.
Stay tuned for Relatively Speaking, Part 2 for more on indigenous languages, the incredible stories behind the diversity of language in the human race, and the role of language in preserving invaluable cultural, spiritual and anthropological knowledge.
(1) Ecology and Literatures in English: Writing to Save the Planet, Françoise Besson, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Copyright 2019.
(2) Philosophy of Language, Franz Von Kitschera, Springer Netherlands, Copyright 1975.
(3) A Linguistic Analysis of the Temporal Concepts in the Hopi Language, Ekkehart Malotki, Mouton de Gruyter, Copyright 2011.
Smith, David (2003, Nov 16) Phenomenology. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/
Toadvine, Ted (2016, Sept 14) Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/merleau-ponty/
University of Iowa (2016, Sept 14) Dogon. Retrieved from https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/peoples/show/Dogon
Harrod Buhner, Steven (2019) Steven Harrod Buhner Books. Retrieved from https://www.stephenharrodbuhner.com/books/
Cleversley, Keith (2002, Jan 1) Psylocybe Mexicana- Teonanacatl. Retrieved from https://www.stephenharrodbuhner.com/books/
Swoyer, Chris (2003) The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. Retrieved from https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/spr2015/entries/relativism/supplement2.html
Duignan, Brian. Benjamin Lee Whorf. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-Lee-Whorf
Luebering, J.E.. Wilhelm von Humboldt. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wilhelm-von-Humboldt
Chen, M. Keith (2002, Jan) The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.230.6996&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Aikhenvald, Alexandra (2002) The Evidentiality System. Retrieved from https://research.jcu.edu.au/lcrc/storeroom/research-projects/evidentiality/folder-2-sashas-publications/evidentiality
If you enjoyed this article…
Her recent projects have revolved around exploring the magic, mystery and science of water. She has studied and taught about water throughout the US, Canada, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Thailand, and now offers resources and additional content on her website, waterislife.love.