Because of my recent radical change in how I make my living, I have now arrived at the extreme end of the philosophy that I began toying with over a decade now. When I first began learning traditional living skills and native-to-place relationships (at the time, at Tom Brown’s Tracker School, back in 1995), I thought language had little or nothing to do with this path. I saw the work on this path consisting of action, not talk. Skills, not discussion. A knife carving into wood, an antler point twisting flakes off the edge of an obsidian flake, not conversation and reflection (and music, and feasting, but more on that for another time).
Cognitive scientists are more and more confirming the everyday empirical evidence accumulated by anyone paying attention; that how we talk about things drives how we think about things. What you won’t hear from scientists quite yet, but I will happily share, concerns the everyday practicality of language. If we can talk about a thing (say, tracking) easily, we can collaborate on it and improve it easily. If we can only talk about a thing with difficulty, we will collaborate and improve with difficulty. Anyone who has ever improvised a technical jargon for a hobby or past-time knows this.
Yet this understanding doesn’t just apply to new coinings for particular tools or methods for niche activities (say, the equipment and techniques necessary for paragliding). This doesn’t just involve technical jargons, but our ability to talk about the world in useful ways.
How we talk about time, space, agency, roles, and relationships, in modern languages such as Chinese, English, French, Russian – does this support richer lives, on a human (rather than industrial or hierarchical) scale? Does this help us understand root causes of social problems, and move towards healing? How does the Hopi concept of Manifested/Unmanifested time, for example, change the richness of relationships in human/wild communities, as opposed to the Indo-European concept of Past/Present/Future?
When I say “richness”, I mean viable human wealth, not the material kind, but the kind that sustains generations of human beings in a web of relatedness to the living community around them.
You can imagine the implications of losing over half the world’s remaining 7000 languages within the century, as you think about these issues.
A skilled flintknapper can make amazing lithic tools, such as arrowheads, every bit as beautiful as one you would find still anciently lying in the earth. Yet the language for speaking about this act, making that arrowhead, and giving it as a gift for the food of the animal’s body, we cannot reproduce in English, without tremendous insight and effort.
I don’t say it cannot be done (neither Edward Sapir nor Benjamin Lee Whorf proposed the misnamed Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, crafted by linguists in the mid-twentieth century, proposing that language limits thinking; rather they believed that language drives and powerfully influences our ability to think about the world). Instead, I say our language provides an enormous impediment for us to wrestle it into saying something meaningful, against the coding of all its grammar and idiom. It wants us to think (and therefore do) what will perpetuate and generate the world we see – the “civilized world”.
Don’t waste my time. The past is the past. We are all one. Be a winner, don’t be a loser. Let’s evolve to the next stage of human progress.
What on earth do these things even mean? Note how you can barely tell whether a Christian fundamentalist, a Buddhist, or a pagan New-Ager said these things. I stand in awe of the ability of English (and other modern languages) to keep us thinking the same old things, revolution after revolution.
At the very least, we have a tremendous amount to learn from non-Indo-european (and non-”civilized”) languages, in order to wrestle these issues in our modern mother tongues. Indigenous languages represent an unbroken tradition of human brilliance (what did indigenous “rocket scientist”-type minds do 30,000 years ago? or today, in the indigenous communities where they still live? certainly not just build a more effective friction fire kit, or knap a better arrowhead, but far more than our modern minds can imagine).
For this reason, I’ve dedicated my adult life to helping revitalize endangered languages. Along with my partner in this endeavor, I’ve made it my goal to turn around the world endangered language crisis within the decade. I look forward to the day when I can turn my attention to other issues, but for now, I can’t imagine more important work than the work of helping to revitalize the indigenous soul, around the world.