The Shakti Journal Exclusive Series:
A Journey through the Landscape of Language,
By Jen Isabel Friend
Relatively Speaking Part 3—Language and Environment: The Vital Link Between Tongue and Terrain
“By the end of this century, an estimated 50-90% of the remaining 7,000 languages on earth will have fallen silent. (3) As the voices of our diverse human peoples become mute, the lifeways of ancient and indigenous cultures 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, hear the voices of plants, speak with animals? Who will have access to the age-old wisdom of cultures eradicated by colonialism?
“And who will be able to communicate beyond the limitations of words? Many indigenous languages don’t even rely on speech at all… 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?”
-Relatively Speaking Part 2, Indigenous Languages: The Endangered Resource of Oral Tradition
Relatively Speaking Part 2— Indigenous Languages: The Endangered Resource of Oral Tradition, by Jen Isabel Friend
Relatively Speaking Part 3—Language and Environment: The Vital Link Between Tongue and Terrain, by Jen Isabel Friend
Think of your mother sitting in her garden, tending to the weeds. Imagine saying of her, “Look, it is gardening. It has brown hair.” The grammatical faux pas seems silly, but in actuality it would be offensive and disrespectful. In English, we never refer to a person by an inanimate pronoun. Doing so would undermine their identity, reducing them to a thing and thus disconnecting them from rest of the web of life.
It is for this reason that in almost all indigenous languages, the same words used to reference people are also applied to the animate world. A hedgehog is not an ‘it’ but more like a ‘him.’ A wolf is less ‘it, the wolf,’ than ‘he, our wolf brother.’
Indigenous cultures have long understood the deeper truth that all of life is but one interconnected family. And thus within their languages lies the syntax of sentience—a linguistic structure that allows for the acknowledgment of the animacy and consciousness of all life.
The SYNTAX OF SENTIENCE
In English, nouns are generally either a person or animal (he/she), or a place or thing (it). The syntax of our language confines us to necessarily reduce any nonanimal being to ‘it,’ distinguishing it from the rest of self-determined life. If we do acknowledge the animacy of something, even then we are necessarily confined to characterize it as a ‘he’ or ‘she.’
By contrast, in the Potawatomi language one could say of a table, “What is it?” And the reply would be, “Dopwen yewe,” meaning, “Table it is.” But of an apple they’d say, “Who is that being?” And the answer would be, “Mshimin yawe,” or “Apple that being is.”
Naturally in these earth-centric cultures, animals are not the only other beings regarded as animate. Trees, fruits, herbs and other plants are also considered vital beings with whom communion and communication can be had.
In some indigenous cultures, not just physiological creatures but also rivers and rocks, sacred medicines, even songs and stories are imbued with living spirit and considered to be conscious entities.
Where is our way to simply acknowledge the existence of another living being without delineating gender? What is our equivalent of the Potawatomi “yawe” that says, “There is life in this being”? Unfortunately we have no such thing.
In a way, speaking English gives us license, if not encouragement, to treat nature irreverently, taking from it the right to be acknowledged as aware and with fundamental rights. How would we see the world differently if rivers and oceans, soil and seeds were not ‘it’s?
Would we feel more of a responsibility towards the environment? Would the language upon which our legal system is built facilitate more legal justice for those beings it would classify as our kin?
Groups like Earth Law Center and The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature are now working to establish rivers and oceans as legal entities possessing the same legal rights as humans, and it’s working.
Often built upon the concepts of tribal sovereignty and indigenous rights, granting legal rights to natural bodies can function not only to protect them, but also to restore or strengthen native access to waterways and fishing and to honor the “critical role of tribes in serving as environmental stewards.”
In 2017, the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand finally won a 160 year-long legal battle to earn their sacred Te Awa Tupua River (known as the Whanganui River) legal recognition in New Zealand courts as a living entity. The settlement also included $80 million in financial redress and $30 million towards improving the river’s health.
Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s Treaty Negotiations Minister, noted that giving a “natural resource a legal personality” is “no stranger” than the legal status awarded to companies. But when we consider that natural resources are our very lifeblood, and that a majority of corporations actually damage or deplete those resources, “corporate personhood” begins to look a lot more strange than personhood for the earth.
BeING AMONG THE STANDING PEOPLE
When I’d completed a year of study with my herbalism teacher Mary Ann Copson, she instructed me in my first vision quest. I went into the forest alone, fasted, and focused on listening, seeing and really perceiving the natural world as purely as possible without letting my human filters get in the way.
In the afternoon I lay down in the crevice of a tree’s long root arms. A single bird sang above me. I echoed its song with a clumsy whistle. Soon, another bird of the same kind joined us. They both hopped a few branches closer and peeped at me, cocking their heads curiously.
I continued echoing their chirps and I noticed they began to simplify each little melody, making it easier for me to echo them. Before long more birds flocked over to check out this strange phenomenon of a human trying to make conversation with them.
Even more birds joined until finally the entire tree was full with birds on every branch, all the same species, all calling out to me, curiously engaged as we listened to each other. There must have been hundreds of them.
Then in one quick instant, they all took flight together in a sudden flurry of wings that left every branch swaying in their wake. My heart stopped for one arresting moment as it seemed the tree itself was taking flight.
To this day I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it—no connection so intimately and impressively extra-human as those moments under that tree. Here was real and direct communion, a point of contact through the sounds of another kind’s language.
A world of birch people, raven people, spider people and stone people demands a deeper level of respect and consideration than simply a forest of flora and fauna. When you know that the creatures around you have their own language, one that can be understood by those with ears to hear, it’s like walking through a foreign land—one that you recognize is not yours alone to use for your own purposes.
By being surrounded by a rich variety of dialects you are humbled. You realize there is much that you don’t know. And yet at the same time, the world is much less lonely of a place when humans are not your only company.
The MIRROR of DIVERSITY: LIFE AND LANGUAGE REFLECT EACH OTHER
Where the most languages are spoken, one will also find the greatest number of plant and animal species. And when we consider the origins of language and the worlds our ancestors inhabited as human language first developed, the strong correlation between linguistic diversity and biodiversity comes as no surprise:
“Linguist Maurice 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’s belief that human language derived directly from participation with nature suggests that the sounds and meanings of words formed in direct response to our natural surroundings.” (Relatively Speaking, Part 1: Linguistic Reciprocity)
Language is born of ecology and is itself a living habitat—a verbal ecosystem that we inhabit with our minds and emotions as surely as our bodies inhabit a landscape. Of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on Earth, 4,800 of them occur in highly biodiverse regions such as the Amazon and the lowland forests of West Africa.
Through the imitation, naming of and communication with various species, richness in biodiversity sustains the richness of language. Take the Eveny language, for example, which has over 1,500 unique words related to reindeer that describe their moods, diets, body parts, health, shape, etc. (1)
In turn, diversity of language also functions to preserve biodiversity by endearing humans to the land with a sense of kinship and interdependence.
“I cannot read books,” said Roy Sesana, a Gana Bushman from Botswana. “But I do know how to read the land and animals. All our children could. If they couldn’t, they would have died long ago.”
A hunter-gatherer’s survival relies on specific knowledge and jargon pertaining to their environment that have been passed down for millennia.
Life and language go hand in hand, and where one is threatened, so is the other. In places where the environment is changing whether due to resource extraction, industrial development, melting ice, drying rivers or raging fires, disconnection from the habitats that gave birth to their native tongues is often a death sentence to indigenous people’s languages.
With changing landscapes and the transfer of subsistence from land to grocery store, the detailed environmental knowledge that makes an indigenous language characteristically unique to its natural surroundings loses significance and purpose in the minds of modern tribal youth. And without fluency in the children, an entire language can be lost in one generation.
When a language dies, we suffer the loss of not only unique speech of anthropological and artistic value, but also spiritual and ecological wisdom that holds insights for living distilled through thousands of years of human survival on the land. As environmental stability decreases, the value of those survival skills will only continue to rise.
Because of this vital link between tongue and terrain, where language is threatened the land is too. Often when there is no one left who is endeared to a given environment, who speaks the language unique to that place and its ecosystem, then there is none left to protect that land from exploitation and development.
We are seeing this reality play out today in the Amazon where indigenous tribes, whose populations have already dwindled in the last century, are some of the last people left standing on site as miners and loggers come to strip their land bare.
Few are more willing to risk and lose their lives to protect the land than those whose entire language—their basis for understanding and communicating reality—is inextricably tied to that land and all the life found there.
How LANGUAGE ORIENTS US TO THE WORLD
The full history of Australia dating back to ancient times has never been written or recorded. It is transmitted only in the Aboriginal oral tradition which contains inherent in its vocabulary the entire history of the people, map of their lands, and every plant and animal that exists in their biosphere. One cannot tell a story in an Aboriginal Australian language without drawing a detailed verbal image of the terrain and its inhabitants.
Concepts we might consider ubiquitous for all humans, such as the idea that the past is behind us and the future is ahead of us, may only be ingrained in our minds because of our language, an idea linguists call “linguistic relativity.”
For example, English speakers will almost always spatially arrange a series of unfolding events (like photos of a man aging) from left to right, in the direction we read. But Indigenous Australian speakers of the Kuuk Thaayore language perceive the past in the East and the future in the West.
Therefore a Thaayore person will always arrange the events in order of East to West, along the path of the sun, regardless of which direction they are facing when they complete the exercise.
What’s intriguing here is that no Thaayore speaker needs to be told which direction they are facing in order to orient themself. They are always intimately attuned to the cardinal directions, whether in a windowless room at the center of a maze or in the dark hull of a ship adrift at sea. There is never a moment in which they are unable to point to the cardinal directions with a stunning accuracy.
One story tells of a Tzeltal speaker from Southern Mexico who was blindfolded and spun around dozens of times in a darkened house. Still dizzy and blindfolded, he pointed with perfect accuracy to the cardinal directions.
Such an ability is not unheard of; in fact it has been studied and well documented by anthropologists and psychologists around the world. The Thaayore are only one of many tribes whose language compels them to perceive the world ‘geocentrically,’ based on their spatial relations to the Earth.
By contrast, English orients us ‘egocentrically,’ giving us self-referencing coordinates like left, right, front and back by which we refer to our environment in relation to ourselves. In tribes from Polynesia to Namibia, Bali to Mexico, such egocentrism would be confounding.
The Guugu Yimithirr people would never say, “Watch out for the snake on your left.” They’d say, “Watch out for the snake north of you.” They couldn’t say, “Pass the salt to your right,” but, “Pass it to the southwest.” They don’t have to pause and calculate the angle of the sun first—it’s simply second nature to them, with an accuracy that Westerners might consider a superpower.
This internal compass is imprinted upon them from the time they first learn to speak as children, and it keeps them constantly oriented—and therefore continuously aware of and connected—to the Earth and her respective place in the cosmos in every moment of their lives.
Juxtaposed with these geocentric spacial languages, the self-centeredness inherent in English becomes plainly evident. It’s not hard to see then how our linguistic system predisposes us to view the world in a fundamentally narcissistic way, suggesting that we are the center of our surroundings and allowing us the option to be altogether unaware of and disconnected from the world around us—our very source of life.
A LAnguage of MEmes: Trending into a PIGEONhole
In addition to its inherent egocentrism, English is increasingly becoming a language of memes. The original meaning of meme as defined by Terence McKenna was “the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency.”
In other words, what an atom is to physicality, what a gene is to biology, thus a meme is to ideology. The rapid evolution of internet memes in the last decade has had a stunning influence on popular culture, and the effects of that influence are increasingly being reflected in our vernacular.
In an age of 140 character ideas, our attention spans have shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds in 2015. Take TikTok’s 15-second videos, or Snapchat’s 10-second stories, or Vine’s 6-second clips. These apps are wildly popular, with TikTok seeing a whopping 1.65 billion downloads in 2019 alone.
It’s hard to deny that language and cognition are simplifying, and it’s a trend that has been in progress for centuries. It’s been well established that in most tribal languages elaborate speech and an extensive, poetic vocabulary are the norm. In Shakespeare’s plays alone there are over 42,000 words that are no longer in use today. (2)
The average American grade student in 1945 had a vocabulary of around 25,000 words. Today it’s around 10,000. (3) But this isn’t exactly to say that English isn’t growing and evolving in response to the world around us.
Every year, Merriam-Webster adds hundreds of words to the dictionary. In 2018 those words included “TL;DR” (‘Too long, didn’t read…’, a term often used online to obliquely request a synopsis of something rather than actually read it) and “bingeable” (addicting TV episodes you can gorge yourself on in rapid succession). Merriam-Webster says of their 2018 additions, “The tendency to use abbreviated forms in casual speech and writing is well documented in this release of new words…”
Considering the direct correlation between biodiversity and linguistic diversity, it’s safe to assume that as our environmental crumbles and out technologically advancing civilization makes its way into the lives and lands of indigenous peoples, language extinction will continue at astronomical rates, and the languages that do survive will become further abridged.
Interestingly, this linguistic truncation is not only occurring in English but also outside of the human race. Marine biologists are finding that even bottlenose dolphins are shortening and simplifying their calls, using less complex whistles to communicate more succinctly with one another.
Researchers theorize this may be due to the drastic rise in oceanic sound pollution over the last century. With ship engines, submarine sonar, underwater construction and mining projects, military explosives testing and nuclear detonations, the ocean is becoming a much noisier place and the sounds of marine life are being increasingly obscured.
As waterways around the world are hushed by dams and mass extinction quiets the wild verbosity of our planet, our own languages are severed from their roots before our very eyes. Our speech has become a one-dimensional echo chamber of human thought that is increasingly informed by technology and internet culture while becoming more impervious to and ever more uninformed by the sensate world.
WAKING BACK UP The WORLD AROUND US
So much rests in the potency of our words. As esteemed indigenous herbalist, distinguished professor and author Robin Kimmerer says, “Without an intimate and sacred connection with the living earth, our attempts to fix the world’s problems will inevitably fail…”
If we sincerely value life on Earth beyond ourselves and our insular achievements, we must use our language to return voice, sentience and sovereignty to nature.
I believe learning the syntax of sentience could help us halt and even reverse much of the damage that has been inflicted upon the land by careless human exploitation. In the words of Noam Chomsky, “Language is a mirror of the mind.”
If your language compels you to say, “I’m going walk among the standing people,” rather than, “I’m going to walk in the woods,” you might see your experience in the forest very differently. When we regard our world as intelligently inhabited, we can no longer treat it as though it is passive and ours for the taking. This is the power of language.
It’s time for the modern world to acknowledge that the same fallacies of thought which mired us into environmental collapse will not be the ones to save us from it. We may be at the height of technology, but we are at the trough of wisdom.
How can we use our language to reorient us to the Earth and return our attention and allegiance to that which sustains us? Words arise from the mind and they often reveal our mental state, yet they also have the power to affect our thoughts in return.
Instead of getting a “download” when we learn something new, which places us in a technological landscape, perhaps we can be “pollinated” or feel “watered by insight.”
Instead of something popular “going viral,” maybe it can spread like dandelions or grow like vines. In our social media, our local communities, our phone calls to congress and texts to besties, let’s reanimate our own primal animacy.
Let your stories slide off the screen and inhabit the tangible chamber of your throat. For hundreds of thousands of years we have told stories and sung songs around fires—it’s central to who we are as humans. Let’s reclaim this birthright, letting grandfather fire inspire and ignite our imaginations with words that move beyond the digital into the visceral.
We must hijack language and communication away from the media and the law, and return it to the dwelling place of our hearts and the living, breathing world around us. We can reunite our psychology with our ecology by weaving landscape back into our language, just as it has been for millenia.
Do you remember what the wind sounds like when it howls through a desert canyon? What about when grasslands whisper, a chorus of frogs croak or a pack of wolves howl? When was the last time you heard these sounds?
What about just a fire cracking or a stream trickling or a river roaring? These natural noises are what we evolved hearing, and they showed us the power of our own voices. As David Abram suggests, let’s begin “planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs—letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.”
Indigenous cultures around the world have a dazzling array of terms to accommodate gender fluid people. Yet in our society we consider them “non-conforming” or “non-binary.” Why do we perceive these individuals as defying convention rather than being a given? Stay tuned for Relatively Speaking, Part 4 for a look into the role of language in our concepts of gender and sexuality.
Check out the previous installment of this series for more on indigenous languages, the incredible stories of linguistic diversity in the human race, and the role language plays in preserving invaluable cultural, spiritual and anthropological knowledge.
ARTISTS FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE
Maxine Noel is a self-taught indigenous artist whose Sioux name, “Ioyan Mani,” translates as “walk beyond.” Born of Santee Oglala Sioux parents on the Birdtail Reservation in Manitoba, Maxine was sent to residential school at age 6 where the struggles she endured strengthened her spirit and encouraged her to speak on Native cultures and social issues.
Yuta Onoda is an illustrator based in Tokyo, Japan whose whimsical illustrations have been featured in TIME Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and other publications.
(1) The Word of God: What Does It Mean?, Alison Morgan, ReSource Publishing, Copyright 2008.
(2) Determining the Shakespeare Canon: Arden of Faversham and A Lover’s Complaint, MacDonald P. Jackson, Oxford University Press, Copyright 2014.
(3) Effective Education: A Prescription for Renewing Our Schools, Clayton Gingerich, Lightning Source Inc., Copyright 2002.
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Evans, Kate (2020, Mar 20) The New Zealand river that became a legal person. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20200319-the-new-zealand-river-that-became-a-legal-person
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El Hammar Castano, Aicha and Harris, Dan and Epstein, Brian and Simon, Evan and Madden, Pete (2020, Feb 14) Deep in the Amazon rainforest, armed tribesmen battle illegal loggers for their future—and ours. Retrieved from
Gaby, Alice (2012, Aug 28) The Thaayorre think of Time Like They Talk of Space. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3428806/
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McSpade, Kevin (2015, May 14) You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish. Retrieved from
Williams, Katie (2020, Jan 16) TikTok Was Installed More Than 738 Million Times in 2019, 44% of its All-Time Downloads. Retrieved from
Merriam-Webster, Incorporated (2018) We Put a Bunch of New Words in the Dictionary. Retrieved from
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies: Yale Environment 360 (2018, Oct 24) Dolphins Are Simplifying Their Calls to Be Heard Over Shipping Noise. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/digest/dolphins-are-simplifying-their-calls-to-be-heard-over-shipping-noise
State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (2020) Robin W Kimmerer. Retrieved from
Center for Humans and Nature (2020) David Abram. Retrieved from https://www.humansandnature.org/david-abram
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
If you enjoyed this article…
- Relatively Speaking Part 4: The Language of Gender - June 5, 2020
- Relatively Speaking Part 3: Tongue and Terrain - April 8, 2020
- Relatively Speaking Part 2: Indigenous Languages - December 14, 2019