Learning indigenous languages


#1

Last year I stumbled upon a book at the library that was basically a Chinook Jargon (basically a trade language made up of French, English, and mostly Coast Salish) dictionary. I checked it out, and casually browsed it a few times (all I remember is that “klahowya” means “goodbye”), and returned it. but I’ve always kind of wondered if people thought it made sense to learn indigenous languages, or something like this. Is it necessary to shuck off the shackles of the English language?


#2

As Willem put it, “Learn your local pidgin!:slight_smile:

Opinions differ on this. Willem has spent a lot of time writing some really great stuff on the College of Mythic Cartography about animist language and English’s shortcomings. And if you don’t have much time for all that reading, his podcast covers a lot of the main points, too. But I, for one, don’t think English has fallen beyond redemption. E-Primitive and the animism of Old English both show some promise. I don’t think the English language innately reflects a civilized worldview any more than our own brains do. So I suppose, in a way, I have to believe that we can rewild English, because if we can’t rewild English, then I have to wonder if we can rewild ourselves.


#3

Last I spoke with Willem about learning your local pidgin, he had changed his mind… I think.


#4

My opinion, for English as we have it: absolutely we need to shuck it off, one way or the other. This may mean transforming it (e-prmitive), it may mean abandoning it.

More and more, as I listen to communication around me, and reflect on what I continue to learn about indigenous languaging and language-worlds, I think of the old software programmer’s truism: GIGO…or, Garbage In, Garbage Out.

It means the computer works fine. If your codes sucks, the computer will do sucky things. If your code rocks, the computer will do rockin’ things.

I feel the same way (god help me, a computer analogy for our brains…forgive me) about how our minds work. Our language will either help us, or hinder us, to see the world through rewilding eyes. A language designed to reinforce a domesticated worldview (and modern English has a staggering array of, pardon my french, mindfucks, such as “time is money” - imagine if you lived in a culture with neither a concept for time, nor money, nor a verb ‘to be’…?)

My question of the moment: if anthropologists and linguists believe that the death of a language, means essentially the death of a particular worldview and culture, and you belonged to a world-devouring culture, would you then choose to abandon its language, to accelerate its death?

Jason, I respect that you and I differ on this point; I seem to only grow more confident, as the years turn, that in the end our language perpetrates a sinister array of hypnotic coercions, that keep us, and many of the folks who we look to as mentors of rewildilng, in the grip of civilization and domestication, and the social illnesses that come with it.

Whew.


#5

“if anthropologists and linguists believe that the death of a language, means essentially the death of a particular worldview and culture, and you belonged to a world-devouring culture, would you then choose to abandon its language, to accelerate its death?”

That is a very good way of explaining this. Thank you for that. It really helps me understand your passion for this subject.


#6

But would the death of English accelerate the death of civilization? Look at the history of English. As far as the civilized languages go, it has one of the shortest histories of domestication. A mere 1,500 years ago, the civilized world recoiled from the barbarism of the Anglo-Saxons. Even the other barbarians (Germanic tribes) saw the Anglo-Saxons as particularly uncivilized. Granted, English has since embraced civilization with all the fervor you’d expect of a new convert, but compare it to some of the languages that have a deep history of domestication. For example, it has none of the formal tense that enforces hierarchy down to your very speech, as you have in the Romance languages descended from Latin.

I’ll readily grant that the tendrils of domesticated logic wind their way through the English language deeply. But they similarly wind their way through our own brains deeply. People who study native languages rarely have sudden epiphanies about the relationship of humans to the world, because even though the languages they study open up new horizons for those possibilities, the people studying them bring their domestication to them. Now I heartily agree that we should study native languages. But whether we use that to replace English, or to understand the language of our land and inform a project of rewilding English, I see as a somewhat more complicated problem. Of all the civilized languages, English seems to me to have the most potential, if only because domestication has shaped it only so recently. As I mentioned before, if we can’t rewild English, I worry what that means about our own potential.


#7

I love this!!! ;D Yes, I’d chuck it!

If only we had a language lifeboat to climb into and totally immerse ourselves in a rewilded language. . . and clearly a rewilded lifestyle as well, they’d have to go hand in hand.

Jason, I hesitate to identify myself so totally with English that I tie my ultimate potential to rewild to that of English–I have to believe I can eventually escape or transform those deep tendrils of civilization, in order to keep myself sane.


#8

Please, please, please start a thread on this. This sounds fascinating, and in order to engage with it and explore it I’ll need to know more about this; at the moment I only have suspicions and curiosities.

Granted, English has since embraced civilization with all the fervor you'd expect of a new convert

Do you really think that it belongs to a culture that crossed the line only 1500 years ago?

I'll readily grant that the tendrils of domesticated logic wind their way through the English language deeply. But they similarly wind their way through our own brains deeply.

I’d suggest that they do so in a reinforcing positive feedback loop with our language.

People who study native languages rarely have sudden epiphanies about the relationship of humans to the world, because even though the languages they study open up new horizons for those possibilities, the people studying them bring their domestication to them.

Absolutely. Studying and IMMERSING yourself in another language really mean two different things. Languages don’t die because somebody starts studying another language; they die because the speaker IMMERSES themselves in a different language, rather than learning their ancestral one. I suspect immersion holds the key; lifestyle, not dabbling or making a hobby of it. Trying on a language with full intention. In any case, I recommend this for that special class of people who rewild that can try on new worldviews, and play with letting go of their domestication. I think many of us can do this, if we choose it consciously!

Now I heartily agree that we should study native languages. But whether we use that to replace English, or to understand the language of our land and inform a project of rewilding English, I see as a somewhat more complicated problem.

Yes, I agree with you here. The problem, to me, looks like this: in order to truly learn animist worldviews, we need to immerse ourselves in them. Our very thoughts and logical systems, as English speakers, reinforce domesticating patterns. So we study animist languages, to reseed English (I also HIGHLY recommend ASL for this). But to really learn at the knee of these languages, we have a lifetime of immersion ahead of us; animist languages only open up with greater depths as even a native speaker learns more of them. If we do our jobs right, will we even remember English to come back to it?

This puts the whole idea of cultural appropriation on its head; I don’t want to become a Mohawk, Blackfoot, Navajo, Hopi; but as old-growth cultures, I have a huge amount to learn from them. In learning fully and immersively, what will I call myself when I lie on my deathbed? At that point, will it matter?


#9

That got me thinking.

We could try to rewild English. But how readily can we recognize the shortcomings of the language as long as we continue to rely upon it as our communication tool? We already have a few ideas – E-primitive, etc. But can we ever be sure that we’ve struck an equilibrium that doesn’t put our thinking & relating at odds with the land around us? Perhaps there are parts of English that we take for granted which just won’t serve us well if we want to indigenize ourselves. And wouldn’t rewilded English take on different aspects in different rewilding cultures w/r/t their values, beliefs, and the very place they inhabit? Will we ever be able to recognize everything that needs to change about our language, or will we remain blind to many of its problems?

It seems to me that as long as English is something we could discard without losing anything too precious, we might as well throw out the bathwater. (After, of course, we have learned how to effectively communicate in the language that has traditionally belonged to our locality.)

Or is this cultural appropriation? After all, we’re not trying to re-enact the past.


#10

wow, such good answers. one thing though, it seems it would be pointless to learn pidgins, as they aren’t indigenous languages, but bastardized (and i would assume civilized) versions of indigenous languages. toxic mimics maybe? I know Chinook Jargon has a pretty low word count as far as languages go, I would assume because it was a trade language, and not really used for much else. So, wouldn’t all (or at least some) the problems associated with english or french come along with the new pidgin?


#11

I think we should consider the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, in which it’s shown that language effects how we can cognitively understand things. If we don’t have a word for something, we can’t imagine it very well, won’t get the subtle implications involved in certain words, etc.

One aspect of the hypothesis is that it’s a two way street. The cognitive processes just as equally influence the formation of language and how we choose our words. So, if we’re out living indigenously and learning to relate to the world in an animist way, is it necessary to so consciously change our language, or will it grow into an animist language naturally?


#12

Well, you can learn them easily because of their ‘pidgin’-ness, and they teach you a bit about all those ghosts haunting your land. However, Chinook Wawa evolved into a creole (a full-fledged language that has grown as such because children grew up speaking the pidgin as their first language) on the Grande Ronde rez. Just FYI. The jargon/pidgin carries a lot of cultural import for Cascadians, by itself, methinks.

So, if we're out living indigenously and learning to relate to the world in an animist way, is it necessary to so consciously change our language, or will it grow into an animist language naturally?

Given enough time, I absolutely think our language will evolved to match our lifestyle. But just as you brought up the Sapir-Whorf hyp, think about how long you’ll continue to live the domesticated lifestyle, even with civ gone. I feel like many a primitivist falls prey to the unaddressed domestication borne of their cultural instincts, carried by their language and the very formulation of their thoughts and self-talk.

In the end, I do experience the Land teaching me all of it anyway; I see these “mentorship via animist languages” as more of a way of addressing the short-term bottleneck facing us right now. Folks who have gone this way before can help me live lifetimes of animist learning in one short life. Not as a rushing, hurry-up kinda thing, but in the same old way Grandparents have passed on all their summed up lifetimes behind them on to the Grandchildren. This seems pretty natural to me; not ‘going back’, but learning from Grandpa and Grandma, in the form of speakers of animist languages.

Really, good luck finding such a mentor anyway; it takes a lot of work to receive this kind of gift and mentoring. Most of us will probably not have a choice but to focus on English for now. I put my energy where my inspiration leads me; yours will lead you to its own unique place.


#13

I’m not sure if this really relates to this thread or not. But several people I know (myself included) have “heard” songs at different places that are definitely not in English. From my own specific experience of this phenomenon, the song seems to be intimately connected to a specific land or feature. Usually these songs are combinations of what most folks would call vocables. By incorporating this kind of language and using these songs more, might we rewild our language and minds?


#14

I’ll assume you meant that question rhetorically - it feels good to flesh out what it means for the Land to teach us to speak. Thanks for the story from your own life!


#15

I don’t think it is a rhetorical question. I think I’ve had the same experience as Pathfinder. These aren’t songs that we made up or composed. These are songs that come to us, seemingly out of nowhere so to speak, already fully developed, complete, ready to do their thing. They live. They work through us and we help them accomplish the work they have to do. We have a relationship with them.
I’m definitely not speaking metaphorically here, this is real. I’ve experienced it.
Can’t say much more about it than that.


#16

Just to clarify, I didn’t mean “metaphorical”, in the sense that Pathfinder had meant it in some symbolic fashion; I meant “rhetorical”, in the sense of, the subject of his question had such power, that just to raise it made the answer obvious: of course the land rewilds us with the songs that it gives us, the language it speaks to us, in a very real and non-metaphorical way.

thanks billy for talking about it some more!


#17

Yes , I understand you now Willem. I’m so used to people looking at me like I’m on acid when I talk about this way of relating to entities like songs, I automatically thought you meant something else.

I should have known you would not be coming from that place.


#18

Yeah, the songs definitely feel alive. “Entities” is actually a good way of describing them. It goes along with the same idea that languages also are truly alive and change over time…


#19

On a different note, there hasn’t been much discussion about written languages here, partially because most written languages tend to go with civilization. But, some indigenous societies had written languages in different forms. Most of them are heavily pictographic (the “letters” of the language actually represent an object not just a sound-there usually a drawing of something). What does the lack of pictographic meaning in English say about our language and minds? Also, in a lot of pictographic languages a single character may have only one sound, but many meanings. This surely would shape ones perceptions around things like certainty and definition.


#20

The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess is a great book that addresses those very issues.

But back to the thread, Willem, would you consider the new form of Chinuk Wawa to be an “indigenous” language, and I guess by that, I mean, does it have the trappings of a civilized language or not?