The spirit world and language


I have thought at times about how English (and European languages in general) make it difficult to perceive the spirit world. This is a good example of how language conditions our perceptions.

There is a word in linguistics called grammaticalization. This means what the grammar of a language requires you to specify in order to make a correct sentence. For example, if you said “he picks it up” in Navajo, you would be required by the rules of the language to specify the shape and other qualities of the “it” that he picked up. In English, you have the option of saying “He picks up something that is flat and soft (like a blanket)” or “He picks up an object that is long and stiff” but only if you have to and you think of it. But that is grammaticalized in Navajo, it is built in to the sentence, you cannot make that statement with a generalized kind of “it.”

Now, look at verbs in English (as in other European languages). If I speak about him picking up an object of whatever shape, I am required by the rules of the language to place that event somewhere in linear time – past, present, or future, or variants thereof (or conditional/contrary to fact, as in “If he were to pick it up…”). Even modals (can, may, should) must be placed in linear time. (“He can pick it up (today or tomorrow),” “He could pick it up (yesterday, but it’s too heavy today),” “He could have picked it up (yesterday),” “He will pick it up (tomorrow),” “He might pick it up (soon),” “He might have picked it up (this morning),” etc. All the various English verb forms – tenses, aspects, modals – all require verbs (unless contrary-to-fact) to be assigned a place on the linear time line that separates past, present, and future into distinct categories. (Actually, in practice there is some blurring between the present and the near future, so to be more correct we might say that English contains a strict separation between past and non-past.)

The simple fact that Hopi contains no past tense (and is hardly unique for that) was the foundation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language conditions thinking/perceiving processes, because Benjamin Whorf experienced how different was the Hopi relationship to time. (Actually, although Hopi verbs do not have past/present/future tense, they do include two other tenses, manifested and becoming manifested. Manifested includes all that is and ever has been, physically. This includes the senses and concrete items. Becoming manifested includes anything which is not physical, has no definite origin and cannot be perceived with the senses. This is grammaticalized; that is to say, Hopi verbs are required to carry one of these tenses.)

But think about the world of people who grow up being required by their language to place all verbs in linear time. There is no “neutral” time in English. We are forced to choose, one of the limited options offered by a linear, either/or language. There is no way to be outside of linear time, outside of either/or true/false choices.

It is no wonder that the Abrahamic religions (Hebrew and Arabic also have grammaticalized tenses) have no place (or rather time) for their mythology to unfold except in “the past,” so they have to be literal history. Either something occurred in a certain specific date in the past, or else it is false – a mere “myth.” Or else fiction. It’s either true or false. Myths are obviously not “true” (they didn’t happen in a literal way on a specific date) therefore, they are “false.” There is no other alternative but “true” and “false” for a language that offers no other tenses. Myths take place outside of linear time, but there is no mythological, outside-of-time time in European languages, so their relationship with their spirit world is literalistic: the Bible is history, Revelations predicts events that will happen on some future calendar date, the purpose of life is to determine your everlasting afterlife. So it isn’t surprising that people who think this way have to fight each other over whose myth represents the one and only truth.

Linear time also makes death frightening, a scary “future prospect” in place of the recognition that we live in death all the time, that our bodies are always in flux and exchange with all other life, that life and death are interwoven cycles. Paradoxically, it is this culture’s pathological fear of death that has caused it to be the great death-dealer of all time. The grammaticalization of tense makes our own death separate from us, a future event that we hope will be very distant. (And it frames the question of what lies “beyond” death – is there an "after"life?) There is no tense that we can use to refer to all of reality at once, our birth and our death and our ancestors and our descendants as a single whole. The language makes them separate from us because we “live” and they either “lived” or “will live.”

This is why it is hard for people conditioned by this type of language, that forces them to think within a narrow linear framework and limits their thought-choices to this narrow line, to conceive of the spirit world. The spirit world is outside of time, it is the intelligent communicative aspect of all being. But in this culture, as children learn to talk, they are taught by their very language to forget the spirit dimension.


Thanks, Sacha. You point out some things that become very hard to see when we speak English all the time, when we use that as the only fluid, the only medium, to share our perceptions with each other. That tiny moment of gathering your thoughts and inner experiences and pouring them through the funnel of whatever language you have available, before they pour out your mouth, includes a whole universe of editing and translation.

[quote=“sacha, post:1, topic:1093”]But in this culture, as children learn to talk, they are taught by their very language to forget the spirit dimension.[/quote] This brings tears to my eyes.

I’ve experienced my death speaking to me through events in my life. It speaks most clearly through my experiences as a mother. Childbirth, not-childbirth, the ever-changing shape of my as-yet unmanifested children, grandchildren . . . Also, during pregnancy I felt more in contact with the spirit world, and felt like much more intense communication came to me via dream than usual.


Sacha, I wonder what you say about the Hebrew/Arabic languages having grammaticalized tenses and having no place (time) for their mythology to unfold in so they must take place at some past date. Do you find this a construct coming from the original language or translation into English etc?


I haven’t studied Semitic languages, I have only observed how easily the framework of religion-as-history transfers to and expresses itself through European languages. Semitic languages do have grammaticalized time-tenses, so there is more or less a direct parallel between both language families that allowed certain things to be translated from one to the other.

On the other hand, if you go to regions (such as Mexico/Central America or the Andes) where Christianity is thoroughly intertwined with pre-Christian practices, they regard the Christian stories (Bible/saint lore) to be happening now, in a sort of parallel dimension (for lack of a better term) and just as the Pop Wuj and other indigenous myths are happening now and are part of the roots of their lives. (The spirit world has been compared to the roots of a tree, invisible but giving life to the visible tree and connecting to all the other root systems.) So you take these Middle East myths and translate them to a language and culture with a timeless relationship with its own mythologies, the Middle Eastern myths lose their “time” orientation and become part of the same living timelessness as the original mythologies.

Many languages do not have tense at all. Many languages, like Chinese and Pima, have aspect but no tense; that is, they distinguish between completed and incompleted actions, but not past and present. That is, “I am weaving a basket” and “I was weaving a basket” would be the same sentence, but distinguished from “I wove a basket” (and finished it).


As a language geek, this topic makes me verry verrrrrry giddy! Thank you!! Ai wish ai had an adjective for “intensely exited and craving more”. ;D
Aive often thought vaguely about a sort of “continuous imperfective” tense with which to tell tales in, so it makes me so happy having these thoughts solidified!
And thanks, too, for reminding me to study Navajo!


One of the effects of the forced imposition of linear time has upon our consciousness is that, in this culture, the “past” is something dead and gone, far removed from the “present” that we are living.

And it has made possible the shrinkage of the present so that “now” is 11:01 am PDT – rather, 11:01:14, no it’s 11:01:15, no it’s 11:01:19 seconds, those seconds are slipping by so fast I can’t even catch them, and it’s really not 11:01 and 29 seconds, it is really 11:01:29 and 17/100 of a second… or is “now” in the thousandth of a second… oh, no, it took me so long to type all this that it is “now” 11:03 and 16 seconds, or rather 11:03:16 and some number of millionths of a second, which means that the “present” is so tiny that it is below my threshold of perception, and present moment is always escaping. No wonder that in this culture people are so removed from the “now” that they are in and focused on the future (when they hope to be able to buy the thing they can’t afford “now”).

In the indigenous, or rather natural, way of consciousness, everything is present that has ever taken place. For example, places have memory because all that happens in that place is always part of the consciousness of that place. “Place” does not mean location, so many degrees latitude and longitude and altitude. The Spirits do not belong to three-dimensional “location” any more than they do to linear time. A Place (as when we speak of Spirit of Place) is a convergence of spiritual energies, all the spirits of all the Plants, Stone, and other beings to manifest a physical Place. All that happens in the Place becomes part of the energy of the Place. Nothing is lost by the Place. Places that were the sites of sacred ceremonies or of traumatic massacres, those energies are always there.

A Place of Power is like a spring where water comes to the surface, a point where spiritual energies may whirl together to form a vortex of spiritual Power. But Spirits and Power and the presence of everything the Place has experienced are not perceivable by people for whom Place is only location in three-dimensional space, and Now is only a point on a linear timeline, where everything defined as “past” on the timeline is gone, no longer Here and Now in this Place.

But the Place is alive, made up of interwoven spirits that are distinct and yet one, and it is ready and willing to teach us, and communicate with us, and interfold our own spirit into it. And the ancestors are alive and willing to teach us as well.

But the language of mechanistic culture blinds us to all that.


I would go so far as to say that thinking period (in any language) makes it difficult to perceive the spirit world. Perhaps English actually causes us to think more and that’s why it is harder to perceive the spiritworld. I wonder if indigenous languages actually create more internal space for a quiet mind that allows those openings to the spiritworld to occur…


I respect your POV Pathfinder, and I have heard that idea before, that any thinking in any language makes it difficult to perceive the spirit world, but something has begun bothering me about it.

The more I study language, the more I see it as a web of insightful questions and discriminations about the world. Depending on whether you want insight into the commodification and destruction of living beings, or insight into the vibrant and living nature of all-that-we-experience, well…obviously different languages pull one’s attention and behavior in different directions.

But the more I look at indigenous languages, the more I experience “spirit” through them.

Keep in mind, this comes from the same guy who advocates learning the original language of dream and myth. But something about the questions one must ask to speak the indigenous languages I’ve studied, really blows my mind.

If nothing else, these native languages started humans out far along the path of spirit and gave them powerful tools to explore that spirit.

I think so much of our conceptions about language stem from an experience of modern indo-european languages, that we really don’t know how to separate the two. Certainly the more I experience the separation, the more that blossoms in me about the potential of the human “intellect” to partner with “spirit”. For me, “questions” and “spirit” go hand in hand, in some inseparable way.

Anyway, great thread everyone.


Head-based mental-conceptual processes and language can indeed be barriers to perceiving spirit. Western philosophers have even gone so far as to say that there is no thinking without language (which means that a scrub jay must be doing something other than “thinking” when she figures out where I have hidden her peanut, but English has no other word). In indigenous culture, someone who is locked inside language and cannot think outside of language would be considered handicapped. That is why non-linguistic beings like babies and non-human animals are our teachers, who help us not to forget those deeper levels of intelligence that we share with all other beings.

The indigenous world is a world of spirit. Spirit comes first, and language grows out of the roots of Spirit. Language is shaped by Spirit, much in the same way as any artistic creation is shaped by Spirit. But in the western culture, as you bring out, language comes first – language and language-based thought define the world, so language takes on a rigid, literalistic character, dictating to Spirit rather than letting itself be shaped by Spirit. So then language and thought become a barrier to Spirit… the ability to perceive Spirit atrophies.

The thought-shaping limitations of English are strong for people who are locked into language-based thought and cannot move into awareness outside of language. But for people who are connected, or reconnecting, to Spirit, they might not ever actually learn an indigenous language, but learning about indigenous ways of languaging can help bring more awareness to how English tries to control and limit how we apprehend the world.


I’m enjoying what you are saying here. In my own awkward way I’ve been trying to say the same things here for quite some time. Thanks.