The Shakti Journal Exclusive Series:
A Journey through the Landscape of Language,
By Jen Isabel Friend
Relatively Speaking Part 2—Indigenous Languages: The Endangered Resource of Oral Tradition
“As Austrian 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.
“Linguist Merleau-Ponty proposed 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.
“The Swampy Cree of Manitoba, the Inuit of the far North, and many other original peoples believe that animals first taught language to humans. 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.”
“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.”
-Relatively Speaking Part 1, Linguistic Reciprocity: How nature created our language and words create our world
Relatively Speaking Part 1— Linguistic Reciprocity: How nature created language and words create our world, by Jen Isabel Friend
Relatively Speaking Part 2—Indigenous Languages: The Endangered Resource of Oral Tradition, by Jen Isabel Friend
There exist thousands of endangered languages worldwide which are still intricately woven into the weft of their landscape. In these places, language serves not merely as a tool for dialogue between humans, but also as a form of art, song, story and prayer. And beneath even those layers lie offering to divinity, map of homelands and continuity of lineage.
A Lakota person may address a stone as Tunkashila, or “Grandfather.” When speaking of the heat of the sun, a Tz’utujil may say, “The teeth of our father.” These words don’t suggest a separate, inert world, but speak to an intimately interconnected web of life beyond the human.
Unlike Western civilized languages that classify and compartmentalize animate from inanimate and subject from object, these indigenous languages accentuate and reinforce the dynamic relationship between all beings. They viscerally invoke the many presences of nature, thereby encouraging acknowledgement and reciprocal participation with our vast family of earthlings.
The kaleidoscope of indigenous linguistic widsoms
In some tribes, such as the YélîDnye of Papua New Guinea, colors are described only in animistic metaphors. To call something black, for example, one says it “carries the essence of midnight.” Something red is “as the parrot.” In this way, even one’s ability to conceptualize and communicate color is a poetic affirmation of nature’s preeminence.
When a Tz’utujil person falls ill, the shaman will rebuild them by speaking or singing a sacred map of holy words onto the sick person’s body. By using this map to recreate the sacred places of the Earth within the person, the shaman can actually use resonance of sound to restore their body to a state wholeness.
The more spiritual initiations a Tz’utujil person receives, the more they unlock new vocabulary. Thus one can always tell how wise or spiritually advanced a person is by the version of Tz’utujil they speak.
Many languages also carry social solutions and relational insights about love and conflict resolution that a westerner would need to scan self-help shelves for years to learn.
In the Kwak’wala language, we might take kwa’layu to mean “dear” or “darling”, but its full translation is, “you are the reason for every breath I take.” The Tz’utujil verb ajob’eneem means equally to love, want and accept. One cannot say they love you without also saying that they want and accept you, just as you are.
And Tz’utujil doesn’t have the verb “to be,” a cornerstone of English—a language primarily concerned with efficiency and personal identity.(1) Tz’utujil is a language of belonging. In order to know who you “are,” you speak of whom you belong to, of where you stand, and with whom you stand.
One wouldn’t say, “He is a shaman.” Rather they might say, “The ways of tracking belong to him.” One wouldn’t say, “She is a mother,” but might instead say, “She belongs to her daughter.” And instead of saying “I am alive,” you would say, “I belong to life.” This kind of syntax establishes an inherent reciprocity, a kinship of inclusion and a natural loyalty to the web of which you are a part.
Without the reductive efficiency of “to be,” nothing is absolute. There is no unequivocal way of saying that something “is” right or wrong, because the language is built around the nuances of relationship and true experience. When people disagree, there is no way of saying who “is” right and who “is” wrong. Instead they’re considered split like firewood—two sides of the same substance.
With a language built on belonging and sharing, the Tz’utujil worldview would not be able to speak or conceive of many of the divisive feuds that have instigated wars among nations. Not because they don’t have a sense of ethics, but because their ethics are inclusive, without ideologies of absoluteness and permanence.
Those Mayan elders who witnessed Western missionaries force colonial languages’ verb “to be” upon the Tz’utujil youth saw it erode their communal connections within just a few generations.
“What the hell for?” Pride, Prejudice and homogenization
At 24, I was working on a novel in Guatemala and falling in love with Tz’utujil language and culture. Everything they do is tuned to the belief that beauty feeds the Gods, and so every word they speak is wrapped in metaphor that imbues profundity and poeticism.
Even a simple sentence like, “The jaguar drank from the lake to quench its thirst on a hot day,” might be said as, “Our brother, the valorous one, drank from the navel of our mother to assuage the bite of our father.” They regard the beauty of their words as food for their ancestors and water for the roots of the tree of life from which they fruit. Thus, eloquence itself is their gift from the human realm to the realm of the divine.
I was hanging out with a couple local guys in the little artisan town of San Juan trying to learn the basics of the language. They patiently taught me how to count while they painted colorful scenes of Mayan farmers. It seemed to me then that even their numerical system was somehow meaningful and profound.
That afternoon, a tall and heavyset American tourist wearing a cowboy hat stepped into the shop to peruse their paintings. I could tell as soon as he spoke that he was Texan. “What are y’all up to?” he asked me. “They’re teaching me Tz’utujil,” I replied, hoping he might buy something to support their craft. The man scoffed. “What the hell for? They should be learning English!”
I could hardly believe his arrogance. I wanted to tell the bastard that he could never comprehend the wisdom and beauty that was slaughtered at the hands of colonial supremacists of his attitude, or how much the Mayan people had suffered at the hands of English speakers in a 36-year genocide funded by the US government. I wanted to shake him, to make him understand.
But I looked to my new friends, who just smiled with accepting forbearance. And I decided not to scare off their potential customer. But even years later the thought of that man still irks me. He epitomized a growing worldwide ideology that glorifies the homogenization of language at the expense of everything it means to be diversely and poetically human.
It’s heartbreaking to know there are groups of people like him actively advocating for language obsolescence. Groups like U.S. English and English First promote the idea that all Americans should speak only English, and they lobby for constitutional amendments to legally limit the use of other languages on U.S. soil. Many states already have some form of ‘Official English’ law.
The ethnocentrism that begets cultural destruction is a global phenomenon as much as it is a phenomenon of globalism. While 21 of the 26 states with such ‘Official English’ laws only passed them since 1981, legal efforts to suppress indigenous languages are as old as colonialism itself.
The linguistic quicksand of colonialism and residential schooling
Colonialists have always understood that to castrate a culture, three primary steps must be taken: separate folks from their land, “teach” their children and annihilate their language.
It is no wonder then that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tens of thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and families by the US government and imprisoned in residential schools designed to further the destruction of First Nations cultures.
While funded by the federal government, these residential schools were operated by various Christian organizations that taught children to believe their own languages were primitive. Children were given Enlish names, instructed only in English, and were routinely beaten for speaking in their native tongue. Disease, unsanitary conditions, lack of medical care, insufficient nutrition, corporal punishment and sexual abuse were all common.
As R.G. Miller, an indigenous artist from Canada, described it, “My horrific experience at Native residential school destroyed my connection with community, family, and my culture. The abuses I suffered there completely broke any sense of trust or intimacy with anyone or anything, including God, spouses, and children for the rest of my life.”
Having been broken from abuse, taught to condemn their ancestry, and forced to reject and abandon every aspect of their culture, when residentially schooled children finally returned home they’d often lost the ability and even the desire to communicate with their own families.
These assimilation schools have been established all over the world—in the Americas, all parts of Africa, India, Australia and beyond. Soviet authorities established such schools in the late 20th century to suppress their richly cultured Native people.
Today there are currently close to a million indigenous children throughout Asia, Africa and South America attending these residential schools—being stripped of their names, languages, religions, traditions and identities and having them forcibly replaced with those of their oppressors.
One such school in India, a “mega-school” with 27,000 indigenous students, has publicly declared that it hopes to change “primitive” children from “liabilities into assets, tax consumers into taxpayers,” as though they are merely commodities in a mill of corpocracy.
It is cultural and linguistic genocide. Nothing is more threatening to the dominant capitalist paradigm than the survival or resurgence of ancient and self-sustaining earth-based values that indigenous cultures have lived by for millenia.
Considering that extractive industry companies are usually the deep pockets funding these these internment camps masquerading as schools, the agenda is clear—remove indigenous peoples from their lands, train them to be workers, and exploit said land for resources.
Thousands of children and counting have died in the custody of residential schools. In Maharashtra, India alone, over 1,000 have died in the past two decades. In addition to abuse and neglect, these numbers also include suicides and children who have died while desperately trying to escape.
These chilling stories ache down into the marrow of my bones. In our positions of privilege, most of us could hardly ever fathom the suffering these innocent children have had to and continue to endure. The ferocity with which colonizers have suppressed indigenous languages speaks volumes to the true power they carry. There is no question that in language there lies so much more than words.
Oral tradition: the foundation of identity
In Alaska, many indigenous languages require specific knowledge just to understand the description of an action. For instance, in Dena’ina Athabascan, verbs used to describe the act of carrying something depend entirely on what is being carried. Detailed knowledge of the environment surrounding the subject is required just to form the sentence, “She carried it.”
But in lands where children are increasingly disconnected from the habitat of their language, where they are no longer immersed in the land that gave birth to their native tongue, the significance of such detailed environmental knowledge becomes greatly diminished in the minds of modern tribal youth. The transfer of subsistence from land to grocery store further diminishes the meaning and value of this knowledge.
Many tribes see language as the foundation of their entire identity, and question whether one can even be Navajo, Apache or Crow if one doesn’t speak the language. Elders often lament that when transposed to English, almost all the specificity and wealth of traditional understandings are lost.
Traditionally, in most First Nations the elders would verbally pass on family history, traditions, songs and stories in an unbroken lineage of oral transmission. But without fluency in the children, the profound philosophical and spiritual beliefs transmitted over hundreds or even thousands of years are suddenly lost on successive generations.
The unfortunate reality is that children raised on English TV and English schooling from infancy often lose, or never even develop, an interest in learning their own tongue. And conversely, many elders view their grandchildren’s attraction to western styles and pastimes as a sign of a new kind of invasion. Naturally when those kids have kids of their own, they raise them to speak English.
In Native communities, the consequences of language loss are compounded through the generations. These can include cultural dislocation, social rootlessness and deprivation of group identity. Bonniface Alimankinni, a Native of the Tiwi Islands, laments, “Our children are stuck somewhere between a past they don’t understand and a future that won’t accept them and offers them nothing.”
Greater than Google: 7,000 unique worlds of understanding
Before Captain Cook arrived in Australia, there were 1,000 languages spoken there. (2) Today there are about 20. In what is now called the US, Columbus could have heard more than 300 unique languages. But by the efforts of him and his kind, today there are only 175, and 55 of those are spoken only by a handful of tribal elders. Without restoration efforts, there will only be 20 left by the year 2050.
In Tibet, little more than a half century after it was annexed by China, dozens of unique local dialects are poised for extinction. As tribespeople are forcibly removed, children conscripted to factory schools, and war, urban growth, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, illness, violent land grabs and industrialization continue to harm indigenous people, their languages continue to pass away. “Manifest Destiny” never ended. It was simply exported to foreign soils.
Now the ill-fate of language has become a shared issue around the world. Already about 97% of the languages that ever existed on Earth are now extinct. Each carried to its end a world of unique understandings about ourselves and our planet. The extinction of a language is a devastation just as the extinction of a species, taking with it tens of thousands of years of oral literature that can never be restored.
By the end of this century, an estimated 50-90% of the remaining 7,000 languages will have fallen silent. (3) As the views and voices of our diverse human ancestry become mute, the values and lifeways of those earth-centric languages also dissolve into an intangible realm beyond even the reach of a search engine.
Soon, humans all over the world will all be able to read books and access the web. But who will be able to read the land? Who will have access to the age-old wisdom of cultures eradicated by colonialism? Who will hear the voices of plants, speak with animals and decipher which evergreen is overhead by the sound of its rustling needles?
And who will be able to communicate beyond the limitations of words? Many indigenous languages don’t even rely on speech at all. Perhaps most well known are the drum languages of Africa, where rhythms laden with meaning travel over a hundred miles per hour between villages. (4) And in around 70 indigenous languages, it’s possible to whistle an entire conversation.
Unlike whistling a song, these musical languages are actually comprised of words and sentences as versatile as regular speech. In this way, people can efficiently communicate across mountains and forests. And because it sounds like birdsong, hunters can converse without scaring off their prey. But who needs to tweet a whole language when we can now tweet 140 characters and communicate around the world instantaneously?
We are losing not only spoken languages, but all the myriad wisdoms, insights and understandings embedded in those languages. We are losing our ability to perceive beyond “small mouth noises” and disembodied symbols of ink and pixels. Everywhere, plants are still communicating with us, whispering their secrets into the breeze for no one but the birds and insects to hear.
And just as the Shipibo people learned to make Ayahuasca by listening to the teachings of plants, there are still whole apothecaries of panaceas waiting to be heard from nature. Especially in these times of environmental unease, there is so much wisdom yet to learn, not just from nature but also from the human languages that nature has already informed.
The uphill battle of preservation
Language extinction is currently taking place even more rapidly than species extinction, and concerned linguists around the world are joining forces with Native initiatives to preserve and empower these dwindling voices.
The United Nations has designated 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages,” hoping to raise awareness of their importance as “complex systems of knowledge” and to compel countries to make strides in revitalization.
We can only hope that this UN endeavor is more successful than its flaccid attempts to honor indigenous peoples in the past. In 2007 the UN passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, wherein Article 15 states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.”
However the entire declaration, and Article 15 in particular, have gone almost completely ignored by the world at large. Most developed countries still view tribal people as boorish, ignorant, and in need of “civilizing.”
Davi Kopenawa of the Amazonian Yanomami people wonders, as all Native people do, “How can we be backward when we know how to protect the rainforest? How can we be primitive when our people live peacefully together in communities that are kind to each other, and that make us strong? How can we be stupid when our instinct is to protect, not destroy the environment?”
While the UN Declaration may not have changed much, there are an inspiring variety of initiatives to keep your eyes and your tithes on. Survival International runs a powerful campaign to stop factory schools around the world. The Indigenous Languages Institute provides tribal language programs for indigenous peoples of North America.
Wikitongues offers online tools for preserving, promoting and passing on languages, and the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices project and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages are teaming up to create interactive talking dictionaries.
All of these programs could use your time and attention. And thanks to projects such as these, languages like Quecha (the most widely spoken indigenous language of South America) are receiving respect and experiencing a resurgence after Google launched a Quecha search engine and Microsoft created a Quecha version of Windows and Office.
By stepping into alliance with indigenous people and offering ourselves as partners in the fight to protect the rich diversity of human language, we not only safeguard individual cultures, we also protect millennia of inherited human wisdom.
Language is not an inert tool wielded by our brains and tongues alone. Language is a dynamic, animate gift that we give and receive in an evolving reciprocity with the Earth.
Through the preservation of language we honor the ancestors who passed it all down to us as the golden distillation of linguistic legacy, and we can invite the wisdom of nature herself to guide us in finding our way back to ecological, social and cultural harmony.
Stay tuned for Relatively Speaking, Part 3 for an exploration of language and the environment. Few recognize the power of language in how we perceive and treat the environment, but reframing our words could very well help us reframe our world…
All art featured in this article is the work of Indigenous ledger artist Wakea Jhane of the Comache Nation. She is a self-taught artist and midwife based in New Mexico. Visit her website here for more of her work: https://www.wakeahjhane.com
(1) Secrets of the Talking Jaguar: Memoirs from the Living Heart of a Mayan Village, Martin Prechtel, Tarcher/Putnam of Penguin Putnam Inc., Copyright 1998.
(2) Know It All Anthropology: The 50 Most Important Ideas in Anthropology, Simon Underdown, Quarto Publishing, Copyright 2007.
(3) Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank, Cambridge University Press, Copyright 2011.
(4) The Drum Language of West Africa: Part 1, Journal of the Royal African Society Vol. 22, No. 87, R.S. Rattray, Oxford University Press, April 1923.
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Check out the first installment of this series for a look into the origins of language as rooted in the natural word, and how our words and cognition are inextricably linked. From birth to death, our languages frame everything we perceive.
Relatively Speaking Part 1: Linguistic Reciprocity: How nature created language and words create our world, by Jen Isabel Friend
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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.