It’s easy to assume that all humans see basically the same reality, with some gleaning more insight from particular details of that reality than others. I think well-meaning people of thoughtful demeanors tend to emphasize this idea by focusing on the shared aspects of humanity rather than differences, whether cultural or individual. The idea that we perceive basically the same reality is however, false. It seems likely that most physiologically and psychologically ‘normal’ people of similar cultural backgrounds perceive a similar reality. It’s also obvious that people with remarkably similar backgrounds can have distinctly different opinions from each other. It’s only through the normalizing lens of statistics and averages that people of similar backgrounds become things like voting blocs or markets.
That said, culture does play an important role in shaping our world views. Language is perhaps one of the most underestimated and important part of our world views as humans. Language is everywhere, and even when you’re alone you can be interpreting the language of another person for yourself, as you are doing now.
The world currently has an estimated 7,097 living languages, according to ethnologue.com, about one third of which are endangered of dying off. Only twenty three languages are spoken by half the world’s population. Some people think that loss of language is a good thing, that it means a step closer to a world in which everyone speaks the same language, a step closer to global peace. This view seems to assume that we lose nothing of great value with the extinction of a language. Numerous anthropologists and sociologists have pointed to interesting differences in perception and the connection to language.
One intriguing example is the color blue. I think it’s fair to say that the color blue is taken for granted by most westerners. However, some cultures don’t actually have a separate word for blue. There is even good evidence that blue was the last color recognized by the ancient Greeks by centuries. In his amazing book, One River, Wade Davis explains the difference in perception between the Siona people of the Amazon and westerners:
“Schultes first learned the Indians did not distinguish green from blue. “For them”, Padre Marcelino had explained, “the sky is green and the forest is blue. The canopy shelters their lives, and the sky beyond, so rarely seen, is but another layer…”
If we can literally see a vastly different sky than one another, in other ways how might our perception of the world differ? Wade Davis has bits of an answer, also shining light on how different plant taxonomy is between Siona natives of the Amazon region again and professional botanists:
“The Indians could readily differentiate their varieties on sight, even from a considerable distance in the forest. What’s more, individuals from different tribes, separated by large expanses of forest, identified these same varieties with amazing consistency…fourteen categories in all, not one of which could be determined based on the rules of his own science… his task was not merely to identify new sources of wealth but rather to understand a new vision of life itself, a profoundly different way of living in a forest.”
It’s not just the Amazon either, in his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez, quoting an anthropologist named Brody, describes how language plays a role in the perceived reality of Eskimos:
“Brody, discussing Eskimo concepts of intimacy with the land, says, flatly, “The key terms are not translatable.” ”
This means that there are Eskimo ideas that can’t be comprehended in English, ideas actually embedded in the construct of language. It’s the same as saying you can’t understand Quantum Mechanics or Newtonian Physics without understanding the language of mathematics. We can’t translate ideas of physics into plain English no matter how hard we try, without losing essential elements. In the preceding paragraph, Lopez is more explicit about the implications of differing world views, rising in part from differing language:
“Misunderstandings that arise when a view of reality similar to our own is assumed to exist; and the ways in which Eskimo’s view of the land presents us with growing ethical, political, and economic problems, because we would prefer that ours was the mind of record in that landscape.”
The point of this is that language can be used as part of a conversation between people and the land. Language can also be used as a tool for destruction, domination or insurrection. Take a moment to think how language has been carefully and brutally controlled by conquerors. In America, thousands of Native American children were punished for using their native tongue in school. Throughout the Americas, slaves were forbidden to use their own tongue.
In Jamaica, the dialect, Patios was developed as a way for slaves to communicate without fear of being overheard by white slave owners while still speaking ‘English’. In the Bahamas, the similar dialect, Bahamian Creole developed. The Navajo language was a secret, unbreakable code used by allied forces fighting Nazis. Jared Diamond in, The World Until Yesterday, makes the impassioned argument that English also helped the British to persist in their staunch resistance to Nazi Germany, when Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons:
“Winston Churchill responded in the House of Commons on May 13 and June 4, 1940, with the two most quoted and most effective 20th-century speeches in the English language… We know now that Britain never did surrender, did not seek a settlement with Hitler, continued to fight, after a year gained Russia and then the United States as allies, and after five years defeated Hitler. But that outcome was not predestined… My point is not that Churchill’s words were untranslatable…My point is instead that the English language is a proxy for everything that made the British keep fighting against seemingly hopeless odds. Speaking English means being heir to a thousand years of independent culture, history, increasing democracy, and island identity.”
Losing a language is losing a way of viewing the world; it’s a loss of identity. Languages can bind us to the land, sometimes to a mythic landscape that embodies a people’s view of the land and their relationship with it. Languages are often destroyed as a way of destroying the people who spoke it. If you can force another culture to speak your language, you are forcing them to abandon their identity for yours and their view of the earth for your own.
A loss of a native language is like the loss of a native species. Languages evolve in specific environments. Some languages have more need for nouns, others verbs, some have many words for snow or ice, others for snakes or trees. No one person can perceive the whole of knowable reality, how can we expect one culture or one language to hold the tools to describe that reality? The languages we’re losing fastest are like the species we’re losing, they’re languages spoken by few with small geographical ranges. The languages we’re losing are also native to some of the places westerners know the least about and many of them are connected to a richness in specific geography that the rise of globalism has failed to capture. If you want to know someone else or somewhere else, don’t step into another’s shoes speak in another’s tongue.