Cultures in America

Languages


What is Language?
What is Language?
   Language is a complex and difficult phenomenon; one naturally assumes that learning a language is like acquiring a mental decoder-ring or mental phrase-book. You think of something in English, produce its exact equivalent in another language, and there you go! instant language. However, different languages have their own internal logics and, you might say, order and understand the world in different ways; the decoder ring approach, then, doesn' really work. The more languages vary from one another, the more it requires of you to rethink your world view. One could say that you can't really understand another world view unless you can understand and speak that world view in the language particular to it.


   Native American languages are in a particularly problematic status; the number of native speakers are declining and we have no idea what these languages looked or sounded like before Europeans arrived. Still, you should get an idea about the nature of these languages and how they might encode individual cultures' world views, that is, get an idea of what it is like to "speak" the Native American world.


General Glossary
World View
   The languages spoken by the Native Americans are mind-bogglingly diverse and nearly numberless. The first rule of thumb in approaching Native American cultures is that you're dealing with a near infinity of cultures that are as diverse from one another as the remainder of human cultures. One cannot possibly hope to even come close to understanding the world view of even a small fraction of these cultures, so you must keep on your guard that you not treat any Native American culture or any Native American language as applicable to all other Native American cultures. The number of Native American languages still be spoken numbers around 2000, of which two hundred or so are spoken in North America, 300-400 are spoken in Central America, and a mind-numbing 1400-1500 are still spoken in South America. No-one is smart enough even to understand the rudiments of a representative sample of these languages! This diversity can be astonishing: in New Mexico, languages as different as Japanese and French exist practically in the same neighborhood while Eskimos from Alaska to Greenland speak languages so similar that they can mutually understand one another even across continent-sized distances. The other thing you need to dispense with is the idea of "primitive," either in relation to culture or language. All human cultures and all human languages extend their history back an equal amount of time; they have all developed over that time but they have developed in different ways. So there is no such thing, really, as a "stagnant" or "primitive" culture or language. When Europeans first encountered Native Americans, they believed Native American language to be one such "primitive" language, and this notion survived into the late nineteenth century. But language is rather a dynamically evolving system that both produces world view and is produced by it.


   European languages all tend to have common characteristics, the most obvious of which are the clear distinctions made between objects and actions (nouns and verbs) and the tendency towards declarative sentences: "The dog ran home." Native American languages do not make such clear distinctions between objects and actions, and North American Native American languages often collapse objects and actions into single words, such as the Eskimo word "anerquwaatit," which means, "he begs you to go out." This type of language in which elements are added to nouns to form new nouns is called an agglutinative language. When verbs are collapsed with nouns it suggests that the culture does not think of actions (running, say) as independent from the the object doing the action, that is, that action is dependent on an actor; European languages make possible a world view in which action can be considered a separate entity from objects.

   Even though all languages in some way install the experience of time into the language—for instance, European languages distinguish between past, present, and future, and most European languages add other temporal categories: continuing actions in the past, unreal actions in the past, actions in the present that will continue into the future, etc.) Native American languages don't necessarily deal with time in the same way. There are categories of the experience of time which European languages don't have built in: duration, repetition, where the knowledge comes from, etc. Whereas in English, we add suffixes to verbs to distinguish past (lived), present (lives), and future (will live), in Maidu, a Californian language, verbs distinguish between one-time actions (bis—live, lived once), actions that continue for some time either in the past, present or future (buss—lives, lived for a while), and actions that the speaker knows only through the report of others (busstsoia—its is said that he/she lived, lives). What becomes clear is that time is experienced in different ways, and in Maidu, time has meaning only in relation to the speaker's knowledge. In Navaho, the verb must express several things no European verb would ever think of adding to a verb: in terms of time: is the action in progress, is it habitual, is it repetitive, is it about to begin, is it about to end; in terms of the actor: is the actor in control of the action or not; in terms of the object of the action: is the object a definite object (a dog) or an indefinite object (the concept of a dog), is the object animate or inanimate, etc. That is, when one understand time and change in the Navaho language, one understands that the universe is composed of animate and inanimate beings and that animate beings don't have full control over their actions, that is, they are subject to other animate beings. In Klamath, spoken in southern Oregon, verbs must distinguish what kind of object is used to bring the action about: flat, round, long, cloth-like, fingers, legs, etc., so that the Klamath never understand any action independent of the means used to make the action possible.

   Many North American languages are aglutinative, that is, they form words by combining several words together into a single word. In the examples I gave above from Eskimo, sometimes these single massive words can function as entire sentences. Other times these words simply serve as part of the sentence, as in Blackfoot (or Siksikaikwan): the word for "medicine pipe song" is natoaskuiinyemainxksini , from nataos ("holy, sacred"), kuiin ("pipe"), and ninxksini ("song"). There are several consequences of such a language on culture and world view: many North American languages are "larger" than their equivalent English expressions—a Blackfoot or Eskimo sentence takes longer to speak than its equivalent English expression for the tendency is to expand the utterance rather than contract it. Also, the experience of an agglutinative language is that the objects of the world are much more closely tied together than the experience of a non-agglutinative language such as English. In Blackfoot, "medicine pipe song" is a single entity, not three.

Richard Hooker





World Cultures Home Page

World Cultures Home Page


@1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-6-98