Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language

Many people who have read any of my posts recently have seen occasional use of a local indigenous language.  This language, Peskotomuhkati-latuwewakon (Passamaquoddy Language), was historically spoken by 20,000 people in eastern Maine and western New Brunswick prior to European contact.  Today, due to a great many factors, including loss of culture and outright suppression of native language in schools and other public institutions, there are only approximately 50 fluent speakers left in the world.  This makes Passamaquoddy an imperiled language and, if it were lost, would represent a loss of information about the northeastern landscape itself.  Most people don’t consider the impact that language has on their manner of perceiving the world and how they express that perception.  The very vocabulary we have at our disposal affects what we see and how we describe it.  In my botany classes, I’ll often have people examine different parts of plants and describe to me what they observe.  In some cases, they fail to see a particular structure (or pattern or shape) until I provide them with a word that describes it.  Once given a word, they easily see the structure on the plant in question and on other plants later in the day (though it was invisible to them prior).  This example has clearly illustrated to me how important language is to our perception of the world we live in.

English is not an indigenous language.  It began around the 5th century AD as Old English and was subsequently altered by later invasions.  It is not a language of hunter -gatherers (i.e., wild people), rather a language of agriculturalists and imperialists (i.e., domesticated people who farm and conquer other races).  I began to wonder if and how the English language could make it difficult for contemporary people to see the world in a manner other than one of exploitation.  Given that we think in English, any limitations and biases built into that language will be expressed in the way we think about anything, including the natural features (e.g., mountains, streams, lakes) that may occur near our homes.  After doing a little research, I realized that, in fact, English has severe limitations when it comes to explaining how connected we truly are to the earth.  Here are four ways that Passamaquoddy differs from English.

1. Human relationship to environment.  In English, we describe how we move across the landscape under our own power as “walking”.  We walk, and in this verb is no mention of the environment we move through. Certainly we can express this relationship but often we don’t.  There are many words for walk in Passamaquoddy.  Examples include kisahqewse (s/he walks uphill), motapewse (s/he walks downhill), milawuhse (s/he walks out into water, into field, onto the ice), kcitawse (s/he walks far into it, like a forest or opening), and ksokawse (s/he walks across something, like a trail or stretch of forest).  These examples (and many other verbs in this Passamaquoddy) show the spatial relationship built into their language—they considered themselves part of the landscape, not separate from it.  Now imagine how different our society would be if we thought of ourselves as part of the local environment (not something separate from and with dominion over it).

2. Language molded by environment.  Indigenous languages communicate features of the landscapes they interact with.  In fact, the language has been shaped by the interaction of people and their wild environment. This provides for unique expression of a world view.  We don’t often realize how much our language affects the way we perceive the world we live in (along with societal conditioning).  For example, for contemporary people, gender is an important feature to pay attention to during social interaction.  In Passamaquoddy, there is no male or female gender.  In this language, grammatical gender is described as animate and inanimate (though defining these is nearly impossible to do in English).  But it is clear that climbing the social ladder was not a defining goal for one in historical Passamaquoddy life.  What was important was to convey significant features of the environment, such as those items that posed a threat, served as sources of food or medicine, could be used to create shelter or bind materials together, and so on.  Now imagine how different our society would be if we spoke a language that was molded by close association with our landscape (rather than speaking a language that has been imposed on the landscape).

3. Historical view of features in environment.  Indigenous languages preserve (though the vocabulary) features of landscape that used to exist and provide one method of studying and learning about these features. For example, Maine used to be home to a number of animals that are no longer found here, including the wolverine, caribou, mountain lion, walrus, and wolf (all extirpated), and the passenger pigeon, great auk, and sea mink (all extinct).  All of these animals are memorialized in the Passamaquoddy Language.  For example, mokalìp (caribou) roughly means “s/he shovels snow to eat”.  Another example, malsom (wolf) roughly means “pseudo dog” or “false dog”, in reference to the “real dog” of the people (the domesticated dog).  Lastly, pihtal (mountain lion) roughly means “long tail”, a clear salient feature that distinguished this cat from other wild cats in the region.  We could also break down the meanings of many geographic features to get interesting information about the way the native people viewed those features.  Now imagine how different our society would be if we spoke a language where the history of our interaction with the environment was expressed (rather than speaking a language brought from another continent).

4. Verb-based language.  English is really about abstracting integral parts of our environment and making them into a thing that can be viewed as separate from the rest of the world.  We think in a noun-based manner. A good example is the word wind (e.g., the wind is blowing hard today).  In Passamaquoddy, wind is a verb:  wocawson (it is windy).  In fact, Passamaquoddy has over 50 words for wind (depending on its strength, direction, what it does, etc.), all of which are verbs.  Using one more example, in English, a cleared open area dominated by grasses and other herbaceous plants is called a field.  It is noun, a thing that is deemed to be a static entity and owned.  In Passamaquoddy, there is no noun for field, it is a verb:  pomskute (there is a field, a field extends along).  It represents an understanding of how dynamic the landscape is, always changing from year to year.  It represents a much more mature view of the environment.  Now imagine how different our society would be if we considered the world to be built of many, complex, dynamic, pieces that cannot be separated from one another (rather than viewing the world as individual pieces that can be made into commodities for profit).

I suspect that some might consider the learning of an indigenous language to be less than useful in today’s market-oriented landscape.  But this pursuit has nothing to do with the market and has everything to do with preserving part of the wild history of my region and part of the world’s ethnosphere.  The languages that were spoken by wild people (i.e., non-domesticated humans) carry information about the environment and help us delve into an untamed mindset—a mindset of awareness and connectedness.  Though this is certainly possible in almost any language, I feel it may be easier to lose the biases contained in modern languages and go closer to the source.  Even without fluency, I have garnered so much information about my homeland from the study of local indigenous language.  And there is no better way to help preserve an imperiled language than learning it, using it, and passing it along to the next generation.  Kulankeyasultiniya (take good care of yourself everyone).