“When we’re talking about our language, it’s not close to our heart, it is our heart.”
– Chief Janice George
Language carries the knowledge of its speakers. Indigenous North American languages are radically different from European languages and embody sets of relationships to the land, to each other, and to time itself. This section offers a glimpse into these different perspectives and worldviews.
David Kanatawakhon-Maracle, Mohawk
“I strongly believe that language and culture are… you can’t have one without the other. And quite literally if you lose one, you lose the other. Most westerners think of culture as paintings, pretty pictures, dances—all the sorts of physical visual stuff. But I think that the real culture of a people is in the way in which they express themselves: how they see the world, how they organize their thoughts, how they view past events, how they deal with future events. And all of that is imparted by language.”
Dr. Marianne Ignace, Canadian/Settler
Linguist, Secwépemc and Haida speaker
“Indigenous languages—I think it’s not just Canadian Indigenous languages—but the kind of wealth and diversity we have in the 6000-odd Indigenous languages on this planet, it’s one of the most remarkable intellectual edifices out there. They’re by no means easy to learn, and they’re incredibly complicated and complex. But nonetheless, structured and systematic. They’re the total opposite of primitive, if anybody still thinks that. I mean, 10,000, 15,000 years or more removed from Indo-European languages, they’re that different. They have a whole different way of organizing the world and organizing knowledge.”
`Atłabala’nuxw – “We are travelling the shoreline”
Dzawada̱’enux̱w artist activist Marianne Nicolson explains a Kwak’wala word that translates in English to “we are travelling the shoreline.”
“The Kwakwaka’wakw have always lived on the beaches, between the land and the sea, and this word refers to the ability to move easily in both environments, working with them to access what is needed for life. But there is also a metaphorical meaning beyond the more literal one, of the ability to navigate between the physical and spiritual realms of life, which are entwined, parts of a whole. The sea otter represents this idea, with its skill in moving nimbly on the land and in the water. This word speaks to the importance of balancing the practical and the spiritual for a balanced life.”
One of the often-cited qualities of many Indigenous languages is the agency “given” to objects that would be considered inanimate in English: a rock, mountain, drum, ceremonial pipe, or tree. Even the idea in many Indigenous cultures that we come from and are related to the stars is a deep difference in worldviews where the universe is alive and owed respect beyond that of an object intended for use. Potawatomi author and professor of Environmental and Forest Biology Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses these differences in her writings.
“This is the grammar of animacy. Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.’ We might snicker at such a mistake, but we also recoil from it. In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.
“To whom does our language extend the grammar of animacy? Naturally, plants and animals are animate, but as I learn, I am discovering that the Potawatomi understanding of what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all learned in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings that are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums, and even stories, are all animate. The list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people. Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say ‘What is it?’ And we answer ‘Dopwen yewe. Table it is.’ But of apple, we must say, ‘Who is that being?’ And reply ‘Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is.’”
Excerpt from the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Listen to the “On Being” podcast interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer: “The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life”
Verb-based versus Noun-based
English uses many more nouns than verbs, whereas most Indigenous languages are far more verb-based. This results in a worldview where objects are less foregrounded than actions, where relationships and interconnections are highlighted. As Mi’kmaq author and professor Dr. Marie Battiste has said, “It’s understanding what things do as opposed to what things are. You have an awareness of a phenomenon, of being in relationship to it.”
Bernie Francis, Mi’kmaq
“Everything happens in the verb. Mi’kmaq people see the world as being as always moving, always changing. The English language, being a noun-oriented language—I could use perhaps a metaphor by saying that English is like a still camera that takes pictures of the world, frame by frame by frame. The Mi’kmaq language is more like a movie camera that takes pictures of the world as being in constant flux.”
Bernie Francis explains the winter months in Mi’kmaq and how time is viewed differently.
Art Napoleon, Cree
TV host and producer, educator, performer
“It’s really verb based, Cree. Like say ‘rain,’ there’s no way to say rain. You have to say: ‘It’s raining.’ It doesn’t exist as a noun. You can’t say wind by itself. It is winding.”
Jeremy Green, Kanyen’keha / Mohawk
“Kanyen’keha is my second language. It’s definitely a different way of thinking about the world and describing things. There’s a lot more respect. English is very patriarchal. Whereas Kanyen’keha is very matriarchal, it’s filled with a lot of expressions for respect. And the way you describe things it’s all about respecting relationships right? You can’t have a relationship without action so that’s why Mohawk is all verbs, because it describes relationships mediated through action. Very very simple.”
English is a language that puts “I” first, both in its conjugation lists and many of its sentences. However, some Indigenous languages give this primary place to “you.” In these languages it is more common to say, for example: “You are seen by me” rather than “I see you.” Linguist Danielle Cyr speaks about Algonquian languages:
linguist, on Algonquian languages
“If Aristotle had been Algonquian, we would see ‘you’ at the top of the conjugation list. Instead of seeing ‘I’ as an ego in the centre of the arena, ‘I’ is the speaker, but they’re not a prominent speaker in the play. And all that they say is in relationship to ‘you’ so that the ‘you’ is well informed and will remain a good partner. It is not all altruism, it’s practical. I will not survive if you are not in my vision field, if you don’t understand me.”
Khelsilem, Sḵwxwú7mesh / Squamish
writer, activist, public speaker, and elected Squamish Nation Council member
“In my experience, the language creates a behaviour of respectfulness and reciprocity and carefulness and kindness. It’s not as bombastic as English or as interrupting and overriding as English can be. I really feel that when you are able to become a language speaker, or you are raised with a language, you have a different way of both looking at the world and also a different way of behaving when you operate from the mindset of that language. That’s the decolonization that can happen from language reclamation.”
In polysynthetic languages, sentences are based on verb “roots” that have many possible prefixes and suffixes added onto them to create complex concepts, so that what might be said in a full sentence in English is often expressed in a single lengthy word. The construction of the polysynthetic language Inuktitut has been compared to a set of Lego pieces interlocking to create meaning, as opposed to a series of individual beads (words) on a string, as in English.
Polysynthetic languages are said to be more flexible than English in that speakers are creating vocabulary “on the fly” through their creative use of these interlocking pieces. Apparently the punning possibilities are endless.