Lost Languages

I transcribed this because I thought it was an interesting story:

Going back to Roosevelt, the environmental movement — the most powerful part of it — really did arise from the upper class. There’s no question about it. But people in that class like (George) Perkins Marshall and so forth really made a separation between society and human beings, and nature itself.

But Native Americans and, if you look at the native languages from all

the Americas — Northwest America and South America — what you find is

a very, very different set of perceptions that inform their relationship

to the environment.

I was reminded of this when I was in Patagonia several years ago,

climbing with some friends, and there was a very tawdry little museum

there of an extirpated tribe called the Yaghan or the Yamana people.

These are the people that Magellan spotted when he came around Tierra

del Fuego and he called them beasts. He called them beasts because when

he looked at them, they were bathing in the winter at the seashore,

they’d taken off their furs, they were rubbing themselves down with

salt water, and steam was coming off their bodies. And he called them


When the Czechs and Germans came and created the great estancias in

Chile and Argentina for wool, for the Hobbesian “dark satanic mills” of

the Industrial Revolution, these natives were bountied at twenty-five

dollars a head and they were rounded up until they were finally in one

mission, an Anglican mission, and this mission was headed by a priest

who was an amateur lexicographer. He loved words. His father, however,

was involved with an earlier massacre of the same people. So even though

they were there and there was only a few hundred of them left, they

didn’t trust him, because of his father’s involvement with this

massacre. So they wouldn’t talk to him, just the tribal chief started to

tell him their language and give him the definition of the words. He

wouldn’t talk about women’s issues, cosmology, ritual initiation, you

know, certain things that were taboo, because those weren’t to be given

to just anybody, but he would talk about everything else. He got to

30,000 words and the Anglican lexicographer died.

Now that dictionary is in the British Museum. Just to give you some

sense, there’s 40,000 words in Japanese. This dictionary’s 30,000 words,

one person, all memory, and no written language. This language has more

verbs than English. And this language, when you read the dictionary

is, in a sense, “local science”. This is a language, when you read it,

where the sacred, survival, hunting, gathering, and psychology, are not

integrated, they were never dis-integrated.

And so, the terms for spiritual states and the terms for psychological

states are all poetically metaphorical of the science of place. So

“i-ka” is a verb, and means: “lying in your canoe in the morning before

dawn, listening to the rushes brush against the bark”. “What were you

doing this morning?” “Oh, I-kan…” Their word for depression is a crab

who is molting its shell and hasn’t dropped it yet, it hasn’t lost the

old shell yet. The language is exquisite. Now if you take seven people

here who are college-educated, and lock them up for a week, they’ll come

up with 12-15,000 words.

This is the beast that Magellan saw. These were the people who were

bountied. This is a language that we don’t understand, because what

we’re trying to do is bring this together (society and the environment)

and these are people that never separated. So, in a sense, the framing

of environmentalism arose — and this is what I think — from a great

love of nature, but also came from a sense of alienation and separation.

Paul Hawken, “The Long Green”. Oct 2004, Long Now Seminars


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>