Animism, Native Language, and Quantum Linguistics

Does the language we speak blind us to the way the world works?

Can we make better observations, and therefore better choices, by changing the way we speak?

One example of “changing the way we speak” involves removing the verb “to be” from one’s use of english, creating “e-prime”. I’ve written a little bit on this before, and currently write mostly in e-prime.

However, e-prime only addresses two problems with the english language; it removes the “is of identity” and the “is of predication” [Meaning, no one thing exactly equates with anything else (John may farm, but calling him a “farmer” oversimplifies all that John expresses as a human being)], and stresses the presence of an active observer (“I see a red cat” rather than “That cat is red”).

In the end, though, we still have a language fundamentally oriented around abstractions and visual concepts; we tend to “see” what the speaker describes. In the Native American language of Blackfoot (Alford 2002), if you speak about someone riding a horse, in that genderless and fundamentally relative language, the listener receives the feeling of riding, not the picture of riding; the movement, sway, and balance of riding the horse, not the image of a rider. Notice also that the listener identifies empathetically with the one doing the riding. You can see someone riding without much impact, but if you “feel” someone riding you’ve entered their world (and essentially begun tracking them; see any of the many articles I’ve written here on the nature of tracking).

Examples abound how indigenous (non-civilization) languages simply present a more scientifically accurate version of the world, linguisitically speaking. What self-respecting modern scientist wouldn’t drool uncontrollably over the opportunity to speak with an evidential case, allowing one to evaluate or share information/data while easily communicating the quality of the data, such as:

* Witness vs. Nonwitness
* Firsthand vs. Secondhand vs. Thirdhand
* Sensory
o Visual vs. Nonvisual (i.e. auditory, olfactory, etc.)
* Inferential
* Reportative
o Hearsay
o Quotative
* Assumed

(from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidentiality)

Now, one can, through flogging English enough, communicate these things in a long-winded manner, but just imagine a language that makes it a fact of daily, common conversation, to speak in such a way. No recourse to scientific jargon, or steepling one’s fingers while leaning back in an easy chair while saying “evidence suggests that, if this data holds true…etc. etc.”. Everyday english speakers don’t speak that way.

To our great loss, we have no easy way of communicating the fluid and contextual nature of observation. Languages spoken by animal trackers and animists, however, effortlessly enable their speakers to do so.

Why? Because our science has only just begun to catch up with knowledge that we once had, and that indigenous animist cultures still have (where they still live): that the universe constantly changes, that we make observations about it using both our heads and our hearts, that we cannot separate the observer from the observed, and that we will always stay at least one step behind the track of the mystery that makes it all possible.

This all brings us to Quantum Linguistics. The late Dan Moonhawk Aldorf did some important work in this area, explicating why native languages seem to come pre-equipped to speak about quantum events, while english (and other indo-european languages) come so ill-equipped.

Does language indeed change the way we observe the world? If so, what next? Do we junk English for some indigenous language, wrestled from its original speakers? Do we try to fix English, as in e-prime, tinkering with it to bring it back some measure of usefulness?

Well, I can say one thing: we have a lot of experimenting to do, and no one person will solve this fiendish riddle.

Written by Willem