Dan Moonhawk Alford

Social and Cultural Anthropology Program
California Institute of Integral Studies
765 Ashbury St.
San Francisco, CA 94117

A harmonious conception of language, from a completely new starting point of interconnectivity, is urgently needed so that world-class thinkers in academic disciplines can factor its influence correctly into their own equations.

"Just how much of the way we view (feel, hear, act in) the world comes from the structure and habits of the language(s) we speak?" is a question that has been debated for centuries.(1) For those who believe in a universal grammar, whose modern spokesmen include Noam Chomsky and Joseph Greenberg, the answer is that, since at base languages have much in common, language has a minimal effect on worldview. For those interested in the relativity of grammars, including anthropological linguists such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf,(2) the differences among languages and thinking are of more interest and importance than their commonalities, and so for us worldview is very much influenced by language.

Or, in more precise terms for a relativist, language and worldview--ways of speaking, thinking, perceiving and being--reciprocally influence each other in a hermeneutic spiral. In this essay, we will explore linguistic relativity by considering possible effects of such grammatical phenomena as animacy and gender, noun habituation, and our notion of time on our thinking and being in the world.


Worldview strikes us as a big thought, as well it should, because it includes not only our own habits, but those of our culture as well, in dealing with the world--the world as background against which we operate, the world as culturally modeled habits of doing and being, perceiving and sensing, thinking and speaking.

Language is one of the principal ways in which we experience and interact with our culture. Thus, the wordworld is the map which a particular language creates in order to navigate the worldview. The wordworld becomes, in some sense, most of the worldview.

The Dogon of Africa illustrate this wordworld creation(3) in a ritual during which they place a cube-shaped basket on the ground, representing earth and material reality, and onto it place a cone-shaped basket representing the sky and concepts; when they tie the baskets together with a palm frond, which translates from their language as "Me Word," a new reality is created which cannot be predicted from the two separate parts (much like water is dissimilar from both hydrogen and oxygen).

Of just such a merging is the wordworld we weave from thoughts and senses, and then live in almost to the exclusion of the sensory world--a wordworld similar to the virtual-reality phenomena currently emerging in the computer world. Language and culture are the virtual realities in which we habitually live, and through which we generally filter and guide our interpretation of raw sensory information. You could also call these our everyday cultural trances.


A great synthetic thinker of the 20th century, Whorf(4) suggested that languages with radically different grammars have speakers with radically different worldviews; that is, that worldviews grow out of the deep grammatical structures of the language--long and deeply held ideas that have been frozen into the very ways of thinking and speaking, and are obligatory when we speak, such as gender, nouns, and 'time.'

Whorf noticed this property of languages while studying linguistics at Yale during the '20s and '30s, where he was also greatly influenced by the ideas of Einstein and the insights of modern physics newly flooding the intellectual climate. Like Einstein,(5) Whorf thought that these new insights into the nature of reality might have something to do with language, and so--taking Einstein's conception and wording of the principles of relativity into account--suggested an alternative wording that fit the facts of language as he saw them.(6)

One reverberating implication of this 'new principle of linguistic relativity' is that no 'universal logic' exists as part of our common humanity: what is logical, rational, and reasonable to one group of speakers may just as easily be illogical, irrational, and unreasonable to another. The following sections examine notions that seem reasonable and logical to English speakers but quite unreasonable and illogical to speakers of other languages.


Probably every natural language makes some distinction, somewhere in the grammar, between what is considered animate and what inanimate. For English speakers, these terms generally mean living and non-living, and appropriate labelling would seem to be merely a matter of common sense. And non-living is, according to this cultural view, less important than living--devalued, "it."

Unlike many languages of the world that indicate or mark the notion of animacy with specific sounds or other patterns, English does not mark directly in the word whether something is animate or inanimate, but does point to it indirectly in various ways: action verbs usually require animate subjects; we use who for humans and which for non-humans (mostly inanimates); and we distinguish the gender of certain entities by using he/she (including our 'pets'). And even though we may think of a tree or a whale as living, we say 'it' when referring to them, which implies inanimate.

By contrast, the Cheyenne language(7) of Montana and Oklahoma marks directly as animate (both inside of verbs(8) and in plural endings) not only what is considered living in English (people, animals), but more: many trees and plants, rocks, objects used in rituals (a ritual pipe is animate while a 'whiteman' tobacco pipe is inanimate)--these we can still understand as a kind of extension of our own notion. But even when we know that what is considered animate in most Indigenous American languages refers to relationship rather than properties or attributes of the object, still how can we make sense of the fact that the calf of the Cheyenne leg is animate while the thigh only inches away is inanimate, or that a raspberry(9) is animate but a strawberry is inanimate in Cheyenne and Mi'kmaq (both Algonquian languages)? All of a sudden, we're not in Kansas anymore--these distinctions just don't make sense to us.

Exactly, says Whorf--as well they shouldn't! After all, what is considered animate or inanimate comes from the grammatical system, which makes perfect sense to them, as ours does to us, because grammar and reason or logic are interrelated. The Cheyenne distinctions make no sense to us because they are different from what our grammar says about the matter. Our logic and granum of animacy differs from theirs(10) in incommensurable ways.

Linguistically, then, we must treat the word 'animate' in a technical rather than common sense way: it suggests to us in 'common sense' that it 'means' the English category 'living,' but Cheyenne 'common sense' suggests some other category within their language, perhaps expressible only in Cheyenne. 'Animate' must be viewed as an abstract term which encompasses how the notion is expressed in all the world's languages.

So while we project a certain understanding of 'animacy' on the wordworld background against which we act, the Cheyennes and others of indigenous America, as well as other indigenous peoples of the world, project a different understanding, against which they act, think and mean.


We project static nouns onto our wordworld and thus our worldview. If you think about the picture of the universe which you carry around with you everyday (though seldom examine), you probably see a lot of empty space with clumps of lifeless matter called suns and planets and asteroids, perhaps with some mysterious things called black holes. In just such a way we can enter a forest and imagine it to be full of things, for which we have nouns, such as the names of trees--oak, pine, mahogany. The English language is, relative to indigenous languages of the world, quite noun-oriented (as are European languages in general). Our verbs require nouns in order to make complete sentences. We habitually classify and categorize the world into nouns--to the dismay of medical practitioners, who know intimately that everything moves in interrelated and interdependent process; to the dismay of those in modern physics, who like Heisenberg decry, "The problems of language here are really serious. We wish to speak in some way about the structure of atoms.... But we cannot speak of atoms in ordinary language."

Most indigenous American languages, by contrast, are more verb-oriented, and their speakers are pointed by their grammars toward relationships, process and flux rather than things. And there's an interesting difference in naming: according to James Youngblood Henderson,(11) Algonquian languages like Mi'kmaq tend to 'name'(12) 'things' for the sounds they make rather than something about their form, which is less permanent. Mi'kmaq, for instance, names a kitten as miaojij, in a way that represents the cat's meow.(13) The situation gets more intricate when naming 'trees' (for which there is no general name, only specific names): the ways by which Mi'kmaq speakers refer to trees actually refer to the sound that the wind makes when it blows through the leaves during autumn about an hour after sunset, when the wind usually comes from a particular direction. So one tree is more like a shu-shu-something and another more like a tinka-tinka-something.

I asked him whether the name would change if something happened to the whole tribe of trees at once to change the sound--would the language keep up its fit with reality? Then that means, I said on hearing an affirmative, that if an elder remembers that these trees over here were called such-and-such fifty years ago, but now after fifty years of acid rain they are called so-and-so, these terms could be seen as valid scientific markers for showing the effects of acid rain over fifty years.

And that's something we can't do with oak, pine and mahogany. So besides referring to sounds, Mi'kmaq names are felt to be verbs, not nouns, and can respond to changes in the environment in a way that European languages don't. Here we see a flexible closeness of fit between word and world that our more noun-oriented European languages literally cannot conceive of. Lacking this closeness we leave ourselves open for such incidents as Whorf pointed out in his most famous examples, such as a fire instigated by the careless handling of what were called 'empty gasoline drums' (where empty normally implies lack of danger).

In addition, this closeness of fit, which many indigenous peoples call harmony, has been going on for a much longer time than we generally imagine, which can be seen in the occasional word fossil. For instance, the Mi'kmaq language contains an obscure place name(14) pointing to the north that speakers could tell referred to some low rumbling, crashing noise, but nobody knew what that noise was because it wasn't used in any other words in the language. When a group of Mi'kmaq went north to visit the place to see if they could get a clue, they found a valley which had been glacier-carved during the last ice age, and the sound referred to the earth-carving noise of over 12,000 years ago--this sound was never heard again or used for any other naming reason by speakers of Mi'kmaq, who, according to Henderson, fled south to wait out the ice age in Mexico and beyond. The noise was encoded in a place name which kept getting passed on so that over millennia people would continue to remember where they were from. While the names for trees can change due to constant contact, we see here the flip-side, a kind of fossilization which comes from lack of contact.

During a 1992 Western and Native American Sciences Conference sponsored by the Fetzer Institute,(15) which I attended with Henderson, one of the Euro-American participants became intellectually staggered by the notion of verb-oriented languages. He admitted later to the group that a thought that kept going through his mind was that Henderson must be making it up, but that it was finally the tone of honesty and sincerity permeating the dialogue that convinced him that Henderson wasn't making it up. He was astounded that such a verby(16) worldview is actually possible, much less alive and well in America 500 years after the invasion of Europeans, after 500 years of cognitive terrorism aimed at breaking up that worldview and substituting another, more nouny one.

But just as indigenous Americans could never have dreamed how people could live in primary noun-orientation while surrounded by the everchanging flux, it is still a continuing puzzle to Europeans and their descendants after 500 years that 'God' to the Natives here is a verb instead of a noun;(17) according to Henderson, one of the toughest tasks indigenous people ever had to face was explaining to Europeans who their non-noun-God was. The Europeans insisted there was one Supreme God persona and all humanity just had different nouns, different names, referring to the same notion. But indigenous Americans insisted that what made sense to them was that they, and nature, and reality were all verbs (which Buckminster Fuller would later argue in our century: "I seem to be a verb,"(18)) or perhaps even below verbs themselves to roots, since often you can make either a verb or noun out of a root.

To get the full impact of our habitual nouniness: Henderson says that when he's on the reserve and talking Mi'kmaq, he can speak all day without uttering a single noun(19)--a staggeringly impossible and unthinkable feat in English, which is in itself a measure of how much nouniness we project on our wordworld and worldview. Worldviews for speakers of most indigenous American languages have verbs for our most cherished concepts, from God to names for humans, animals, plants, nature, etc., whereas our virtual reality wordworld assures us that everything important, or 'real', comes packaged as sensory 'things' called nouns.

In fairness to nouns (and to ward off potential charges of verbophilia), it must be said that languages with alphabetic writing systems favor nouns highly for providing the illusion of continuity, allowing modems to peer into the lives of the ancients with some degree of accuracy. Nouns allow an illusion of stability amidst the flux, which can be very useful. After returning to Nova Scotia following a month in California recently, Henderson found problems he had discussed with others in Mi'kmaq before he left still undone and being endlessly discussed. "You know what we need around here?" he declaimed to his co-workers: "MORE NOUNS! So we can tie some things down!"

And, if the grammatical truth be known, by focusing on 'nouns' as things we overlook an overall systemic complexity in which 'nouns' are slots created and demanded by verbs and sentence patterns. We cannot just say "Flashed!" as Hopi speakers can--we are forced by our grammar to invent a mythical "it" which does the flashing, and then categorize and differentiate into explosions, meteorites, quasars, etc. In the same way, feelings of 'dis-ease' and aching in our heads become nouns, and cancerous' becomes cancer--a noun which the body has and can be surgically removed--and even a deficiency, a lack or decrease of something, which by definition does not exist, becomes a noun like AIDS. The ancient Indo-European thought patterns which require our verbs to have nouns can often make us insensitive to cultural thought patterns which do not require them, or even academic thought patterns which do not, such as the insights of quantum physics.


At first glance you would think that the relative pronouns he/she, him/her, and his/hers point to entities that might correspond to our notion of living. However, since almost all plants, trees, babies, animals, fish, insects, and other beings we tend to consider living are almost invariably referred to with it, which most typically suggests non-living or 'inanimate', some other process seems to be at work when we refer to entities with masculine and feminine pronouns.

As it happens, with old and rare metaphorical exceptions having to do with motion and activity, we use these gender pronouns only when the details of genitalia become important to us. Babies graduate from it to gender pronouns as they get older and their sexual characteristics are more culturally apparent (or when you're told!); a dog that might be it to a stranger who doesn't particularly care about the dog's genitalia, is staunchly he or she to members of the family to which 'it' belongs, for whom it is intensely important to use the genitalia reference appropriately. And this can be used for social control: for instance, young men who wore pony tails during the '60s and '70s were often referred to as "it" by more conservative citizens.

Only rarely do we ever notice odd, ancient echoes of the original animacy marking function: most people remember being told that ships are called she, but only a sailor might know that once military ships are decommissioned, they return to being it. The she in a "normal" ship therefore refers to an animating activity which is missing in a mere hulk.(20) Only rarely do we notice that we have culturally stopped referring to Earth as she, much less She, that we've stopped automatically capitalizing her name (even countries' names get capitalized, but not always Earth), that we can casually say it referring to her.

However we may actually feel about entities we encounter, such as whether they are living or not, gender is something we keep track of with our pronouns as something obligatory to pay attention to.(21) By contrast, many languages of the world, including most indigenous American ones, do not impress gender onto their worldview as anything important to pay attention to; the Mi'kmaq language, for instance, has no formal way of habitually distinguishing between male and female--the closest they come to that is in distinguishing pregnant-somethings from other somethings. By implication it indeed refers to female, but more importantly it refers to a life-containing condition, which happens to occur just in females of species, and honors the life-process.

Third-person singular in Algonquian languages in general may best be translated as he/she, her/him, hers/his, etc.; correspondingly, personal names in indigenous America also do not draw attention to the gender of the one named, as the recently popular Dances with Wolves and Stands with Fist attest. In most indigenous languages of the Americas, their grammars do not support any important attention being paid to gender. English speakers learning these languages must unlearn gender, often causing a degree of cognitive dissonance. Conversely, speakers of these languages learning English must learn to devote what seems to be an inordinate amount of attention and memory to issues involving private parts just in order to speak English properly.

So no matter how successful our current societal efforts may be in changing the use of he and man as generic third person singulars, our living-fossilized Indo-European thought patterns still oblige us to make distinctions between he, she and it on the first pass so that we can use pronouns as we continue to speak about them--which is not the case in many other language around the Earth.


In the same way that our language not-so-subtly assists us in noticing and projecting 'animacy', nouniness and gender onto the world (and forget our part in the projecting and take it for real), we also project what we think time is and generally act as if it is "really" out there independent of our projections.

Just as all cultures notice animacy and encode it in their languages, albeit in drastically different ways, so too time. The differences can include whether you assume time is linear or cyclical, or whether in linear time you assume that the future is located ahead of or behind you. Let me explain.

Every graduation speech reminds us that while our past is now behind us, our future is ahead of us, thus reinforcing our cultural image of time. It comes as a surprise to many that the ancient Greek speakers projected a similar linear image of time onto their worldview, except it ran 180 degrees opposite, with the future behind and the past ahead. How could this be so?

While we moderns navigate a rather static spacetime worldview by moving through time, time moved through the Greeks: circling the world it came up to them from behind, where we don't have eyes and can't see things coming at us, moved through them and into the past in front of them, where they had eyes and could see the fleeting impressions of the present and the more frozen imprints of that which happened in the past. Thus, in the river-flow of time, the mysterious and unseen future was behind them, and the known past and present in front to be seen. So even in our own European cultural history, the river of time backed up and started flowing in the opposite direction.(22)

Whence do we obtain this image of a flowing river of time with which we so unthinkingly invest our worldview? Although the Greeks obviously had it, though flowing in the other direction, we may look to the Romans as the real spreaders of the image of time with Latin grammars--grammars that were thought to be the very height of the rational thinking of humankind for long periods of time.

In fact, as a way of categorizing language facts coming in from newly discovered parts of the world half-a-millennium ago, so that certain things in one language could be roughly compared to certain things in another language, the Latin mold of grammar was highly successful (as is the Newtonian worldview for most events in our daily world). It's no wonder that monolingual speakers of English naively assume that all languages are just as nouny as ours and just have different words for the same image of time we have.

Latin Grammar was, naturally, applied to a newly developed language called English as it passed through this period. English, a European language, was given the same Latin treatment for understanding and discussing structure as was given to the newly discovered indigenous American languages--all cast within the structure and worldview of Latin. So ever since English was first analyzed, its speakers have been told that it has the same time system of past-present-future tenses that usually add on as suffixes in Latin and other Indo-European languages;(23) in fact, this is what we actually do when we add an -ed to a verb like cook to show past tense: cooked, or when we modify vowels to show the same thing: drive to drove. So it appears we do have the same time tenses, like other Indo-European languages.

Or do we? At least one text grammar of English(24) throws off the Latin model and looks at the structure of English in its own right and claims that English does not have a standard Indo-European three-tense system at all--merely two tenses (past and non-past) plus a lot of aspects. Perhaps this is why our river of time can at times flow either way: the riverbed does not lie in our grammar at all, but in our metaphorical system instead.

So an interesting question presents itself: Were it not for the historical Latinate analysis of English grammar, what image of time might speakers of English project habitually on their wordworld and worldview? What would everyday life be like with something else projected as a time image? Imagine if you weren't projecting the image of a river of time going either direction at all, but projecting an image of time instead as rhythms and cycles, spirals and circles. And as far as some of the people who project that worldview are concerned, if you take a circle and look at it sideways, it looks like a line; if you take something rotating so fast it looks like a blur and look at it just right from the side, it looks like a solid line--which confuses the senses about the blur of activity going on.

Just as we must divorce our notion of living from 'animate' in order to use it as a category for languages from all over the world (the same relationship as a phone to its phoneme(25) in a particular language), we must also divorce 'time' from our image of a river of time in order to describe the wordworld/worldview difference going on, such as whether the movement is linear or cyclical. The grammars of languages show clearly that not everyone lives in the same "time."


What would a worldview be like without our notions of nouniness, gender, and time? I've given some reasonable alternatives in related sections above, but now we're talking about a worldview without any of them (and more that I haven't discussed). It would seem to us a worldview full of holes.

After all, as Whorf pointed out in his "American Indian Model of the Universe" (1956:59), our two major cosmic forms that we of Standard Average European languages project onto the universe are Space and Time, the first cosmic category under which all other categories are subsumed. If you try to subtract Space and Time from your worldview right now, the effect is worse than full of holes--the whole notion of a worldview probably crumbles in your mind.

The trick, of course, is that you don't get other worldviews by subtracting parts of your own. Each is projected whole, without holes, from its own source. As Whorf pointed out in the article mentioned above, the Hopi worldview, for instance, instead of using 'space' and 'time' as cosmic primes, is permeated with a different, interpenetrating duality of cosmic forms: the MANIFEST (or OBJECTIVE), which is something like our past and some of our present, and the UNMANIFEST or MANIFESTING (or SUBJECTIVE), which includes our future and mental events. (A more precise translation into spacetime terms might possibly be herenow and wherewhen, since they suggest that the complementary realms interact like verbs.(26)) Most everything that fits into our categories fits just as snugly in theirs, but it takes an adjustment to see it properly, like tilting your head 90 degrees again so that the line becomes a circle.

The simplistic description of the Hopi projection above is really not convincing: it's too easy--you can do it in your mind just by substituting labels while still projecting nouniness. As you might have guessed, the trick comes in understanding the Hopi projection as verby, not nouny. So let's look at Whorf's fuller, richer and more detailed descriptions:(27)

The objective or manifested comprises all that is or has been accessible to the senses, the historical physical universe, in fact, with no attempt to distinguish between present and past, but excluding everything we call the future. The subjective or manifesting, comprises all that we call the future, BUT NOT MERELY THIS; it includes equally and indistinguishably all that we call mental--everything that appears or exists in the mind, or, as the Hopi would prefer to say, in the HEART, not only in the heart of man, but in the heart of animals, plants, and things, and behind and within all the forms and appearances of nature in the heart of nature, and by an implication and extension which has been felt by more than one anthropologist, yet would hardly ever be spoken of by a Hopi himself, so charged is the idea with religious and magical awareness, in the very heart of the Cosmos, itself.(28) The subjective realm (subjective from our viewpoint but intensely real and quivering with life, power, and potency to the Hopi) embraces not only our FUTURE, much of which the Hopi regards as more or less predestined in essence if not in exact form, but also all mentality, intellection, and emotion, the essence and typical form of which is the striving of purposeful desire, intelligent in character, toward manifestation--a manifestation which is much resisted and delayed, but in some form or other is inevitable. It is the realm of expectancy, of desire and purpose, of vitalizing life, of efficient causes, of thought thinking itself out from an inner realm (the Hopi HEART) into manifestation. It is in a dynamic state, yet not a state of motion--it is not advancing toward us out of a future, but ALREADY WITH US in vital and mental form, and its dynamism is at work in the field of eventuating or manifesting, i.e. evolving without motion from the subjective by degrees to a result which is the objective. (pp59-60)

Many of my students have found it an interesting daily exercise to attempt thinking indigenously from time to time, substituting the manifest and manifesting for our usual space and time, and seeing how things 'look' and mean from that perspective (such as perceiving something hoped for as already present in unmanifest form rather than in some indefinite future). This shift in perspective allows them to feel their future plans and goals eventuating in a dynamic way, rather than statically trapped somewhere in a nebulous future.


Before we leave this worldview of manifest/manifesting, let's look at what happens where they meet. If we visualize this as nouns meeting, we're in trouble: so let's consider them as processes. What we're anticipating, specifically, is how reality is created in movement from the invisible manifesting realm into the visible/manifest. How does something which exists as energy, even thought energy, begin manifesting as matter to the physical senses?

Einstein's relativity equation, e=mc2, can be of help here since it equates energy and matter with a puzzling notion of speed of light squared: the speed of light times the speed of light. Or, alternatively, something slower than the speed of light interacting with something much faster than the speed of light in a way that satisfies c-squared; this allows for vibrations sensed at slower than light frequencies to have, simultaneously, faster than speed of light frequencies as well.

In just such a way, at the interpenetration of the manifesting and manifest, complex rhythms faster than the speed of light in the manifesting mental realm mesh with longer, slower rhythms in the manifest sensory realm. It is the function of the 'shamanic stance' by whatever name in cultures around the world to honor each realm in balance. The 'observer' determines whether attention is placed on the slower-than-light or faster-than-light phenomena, or both, happening at the same time. What happens where these phenomena interact? is the question we began this section with.

We may take our cue from the Hopi, who use this structure habitually (unlike our physicists, who must learn to think in processes as a foreign language). For instance, Hopi has an inceptive particle (our inceptive usually means 'begin') which can denote both starting and stopping. It behaves in this interesting way when used with manifesting verbs by simultaneously marking the end of the manifesting and the beginning of the manifest. Thus when a verb we can roughly translate as "hoping" is used with an inceptive, it means not "begins to hope," but more like "having been hoped for, it begins to manifest." Whorf explains:

This realm of the subjective or of the process of manifestation, as distinguished 'from the objective, the result of this universal process, includes also--on its border but still pertaining to its own realm--an aspect of existence that we include in our present time. It is that which is beginning to emerge into manifestation; that is, something which is beginning to be done, like going to sleep or starting to write, but is not yet in full operation. This can be and usually is referred to by the same verb form (the EXPECTIVE form in my terminology of Hopi grammar) that refers to our future, or to wishing, wanting, intending, etc. Thus, this nearer edge of the subjective cuts across and includes a part of our present time, viz, the moment of inception, but most of our present belongs in the Hopi scheme to the objective realm and so is indistinguishable from our past. There is also a verb form, the INCEPTIVE which refers to this EDGE of emergent manifestation in the reverse way--as belonging to the objective, as the edge at which objectivity is attained; this is used to indicate beginning or starting, and in most cases there is no difference apparent in the translation from the similar use of the expective. But, at certain crucial points, significant and fundamental differences appear. The inceptive, referring to the objective and result side, and not like the expective to the subjective and causal side, implies the ending of the work of causation in the same breath that it states the beginning of manifestation. If the verb has a suffix which answers somewhat to our passive, but really means that causation impinges upon a subject to effect a certain result--i.e. 'the food is being eaten,' then addition of the INCEPTIVE suffix in such a way as to refer to the basic action produces a meaning of causal cessation. The basic action is in the inceptive state; hence whatever causation is behind it is ceasing; the causation explicitly referred to by the causal suffix is hence such as we would call past time, and the verb includes this and the incepting and the decausating of the final state (a state of partial or total eatenness) in one statement. The translation is 'it stops getting eaten.' Without knowing the underlying Hopian metaphysics, it would be impossible to understand how the same suffix may denote starting or stopping. [emphasis mine] (pp. 60-61)

The reason I have risked the reader's displeasure by violating academic norms for length of quotations is to provide perhaps the best articulated details on record of the logic of another wordworld which 'lacks' our notion of time, and to show how subtle grammatical interactions reveal in Hopi a very complex metaphysics of process realms--and ways of thinking in process rather than noun terms.

At least two forces may impel vibrations across the manifesting/manifest zone: habits (structurally fixed by repetition of thoughts, attitudes, prayer, etc.) and intense emotion. Just talking about something increases the chances of its actually occurring; saying it with intense emotion probably further increases its chances; and talking about it habitually increases its chances not only of occurring, but of occurring habitually in your wordworld and worldview. (Which is why self-deprecating phrases such as "I can't draw," become self-fulfilling prophecies, since our subconscious hears every word we say.)

A less dramatic, more subtle process occurring at this cross-over zone takes place on a continual basis for some peoples of the world, mostly speakers of indigenous, verb-oriented languages. Owen Barfield(29) calls this process "original participation," where the people's preconscious stance is that language evokes, pulls forth from the manifesting into the manifest, rather than merely refers; it is a way of being watchful in a process world of verbs rather than taking the 'it-ness' of things for granted as nouns, and being careful what they speak. And when these people speak to us from within this view of "participation between perceiver and perceived, between [hu]man and nature", their oratory and writings sound to us like poetry rather than prose. Barfield uses the term "original participation" in this daily wordworld sense to distinguish it from a similar participation in which we engage occasionally with poetry and art.

In a primordial sense, even for us, to speak is to create, and to repeat is to re-create. But to speak in "original participation" is a sacred, mindful act of speaking the manifesting into the manifest. Done habitually, it does not allow space for speaking anything you would not want showing up in your manifest world. You develop a healthy respect for silence, an acknowledgement of the presence of the manifesting, as well as an acute previewing (or presaying) process concerning things you're about to say. This original participation can also be called, from an indigenous American perspective, a sacred or medicine way of language. What is for indigenous people a natural embeddedness, however, must for us be instead a conscious attitude chosen instead of our normal cultural attitudes toward speaking.

Living in original participation means using speech and language to evoke, to bring into existence more harmony between the realms; it means speaking only that which you would like to happen in reality. In such a worldview there is simply no excuse for saying things like, "Boy, am I stupid!" because it's not anything you would care to come true in reality.

This original participation with language, what we can call sacred speech, is thus a subset of everything that could be said in any language. Certain utterances are left unsaid, certain thoughts are not manifest through the rhythms of speaking because of this mindset toward speaking. Seen in such a way, it is possible to imagine a subset of English appropriate to sacred speech which at every moment intends to evoke into the manifest that which is perceived in the manifesting realm, thus creating harmony between the realms. It's an extension of an attitude which our grandmothers implanted in most of us: "If you can't say nuthin' nice, don't say nuthin' at all."


Robert McDermott, President of the California Institute of Integral Studies, mentioned in a 1991 lecture that as important as the ideas of Einstein have been to us in this century, even more important have been the ideas of anthropology in the way they help us understand the ways of being of other people. Learning other ways of being helps us understand ourselves. The ramifications of our wordworld projection's onto our worldview are of more than 'mere' academic interest: a recognition of their importance can help us begin a new examination of some of our most entrenched cultural problems.

Noun-habituation focuses our attention on objects rather than processes and relationships, thus hindering systems thinking. A spotted owl is a bird, an old-growth forest is a bunch of trees, a marshland is underutilized real estate--instead of fragile, interrelated ecosystems on which our lives ultimately depend. Although we certainly cannot change the structure of our language, it is not too much to ask that we become aware of our nouns--aware of the multitude of processes lurking inside the nouns we are forced by our grammar to use.

When 'time' is culturally imagined as a straight line stretching from infinity past to infinity future, we feel we can always move away from an unpleasant past and toward a brighter future, with no fear or anticipation that our mistakes will cycle and recycle back on us. Perhaps we are envisioning 'time' as a thing rather than a process, and a change of perspective might allow the line to return to being a circle in our thinking.

Although I do not claim that grammaticization of gender 'causes' sexism and chauvinism (the Chinese language has no gender, but the Chinese culture has been historically repressive to women), there can be little doubt that grammatical gender entrenches and supports such views--witness our own cultural attempts in recent decades to find appropriate alternatives to he and she, at least in our writing: s/he, his, they for singular, etc. Awareness that our obligatory noticing of gender is not a universal human language obligation is the first step in ridding ourselves of sexism.

And, perhaps most tellingly, I cannot escape the feeling that the lack of direct 'animate' markers in our grammar, which lack assists us in imagining that entities whose sexual features don't matter to us are not really 'alive' in the same way as humans, has something to do with our wanton destruction of non-human life forms on Mother Earth. We are 'it-ting' Earth to death (with inanimacy, nouns and pronouns), and seldom even refer to her as She anymore.

A change in language can transform our appreciation of the Cosmos (Whorf, p. 263)

Whorf is not claiming that a change of language is simple--we have thousands of years of our ancestors conforming to these Indo-European habits. We can easily invent new nouns and verbs--we do it all the time; but it's been a very long time since we successfully created new pronouns, modal aspects, or other structural elements. However, bringing these wordworld issues to the forefront of consciousness, rather than having them influence us only subconsciously, is one way to add new perspectives to some of our most vexing cultural problems. As Whorf proclaimed near the end of his life (1956:246),

We all know now that the forces studied by physics, chemistry, and biology are powerful and important People generally do not know that the forces studied by linguistics are powerful and important, that its principles control every sort of agreement and understanding among human beings, and that sooner or later it will have to sit as judge while the other sciences bring their results to its court to inquire into what they mean.


1. See Alford. "A Hidden Cycle in the History of Linguistics. Phoenix: New Directions in the Study of Man. Volume IV. Nos. 1 & 2. 1980. (back to text)

2. Although an examination of his essays in Language, Thought and Reality reveal a great many more universalist statements than relativity statements. It is, apparently, not impossible for an individual to consider both perspectives to be revealing. (back to text)

3. This information comes from an exhibit on the Dogons at the Lowie Museum at U.C. Berkeley in 1977. (back to text)

4. Language, Thought & Reality, MIT Press, 1956. See especially the last four chapters, which were written for non-linguists. (back to text)

5. "What is it that brings about such an ultimate connection between language and thinking? ... the mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. This makes us realize to what extent the same language means the same mentality." Albert Einstein, The Common Language of Science", in his Ideas and Opinions: NY: Bonanza Books, 1954. (back to text)

6. Compare Einstein's geometry and thinking solution with Whorf's language and thinking solution: "We are thus led to extend the transformations to arbitrary continuous transformations. This implies the general principle of relativity: Natural laws must be covariant with respect to arbitrary continuous transformations of coordinates.' And "We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated." (Whorf, "Science & Linguistics,' 1956:214) (back to text)

7. I did fieldwork on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation from 1971-75, developing an alphabet a writing system for the language as part of a federal bilingual education program. (back to text)

8. e.g., Cheyenne speakers infix -m- and -h- next to the verb-stem to show animate and inanimate objects of the verb: navoomo, I see him/her; navoohta, I see it. (back to text)

9. Terry Straus, "The Implacable Raspberry", unpublished ms. 1973. These distinctions can also be found in the English-Cheyenne Student Dictionary. Montana indian Publications, Billings, Montana: 1976. (back to text)

10. See Arlene Mazak, Revision 1992. 14(4). re the "notion of epistemological relativism," which "refers to cultures having a totally different way of thinking about or apprehending experience, a logic of a different order from our own." (back to text)

11. During his 1991 speaking engagements at the California Institute of Integral Studies. (back to text)

12. When we name in English, we create nouns, but names in Algonquian are build around verbs and are felt to be verbs by native speakers. (back to text)

13. Similarly, the Cheyenne word for duck, se?se, comes from the sound of the feathers moving rather than coming from, as in English, the form with a head underwater. (back to text)

14. Chignectou in old Mi'cmaq spelling, as in the Isthmus of Chignectou, Sikniktuwaq in new Mi'kmaq spelling: an area of New Brunswick near Prince Edward Island. (back to text)

15. At this conference, which I consider a watershed event in human history, world-class physicists such as David Bohm (friend and co-worker of Einstein) and David Peat dialogued with indigenous American intellectuals such as Sa'kej Henderson, Leroy Little Bear, Peter Kelly and others, regarding the nature of reality, space, time and language. The indigenous Americans felt that it was the first time they had ever been so treated as intellectual equals. I have just learned, in the final draft of this article, that David Bohm passed this month, October 1992, of a heart attack. But I will remember his gentleness, his humor, his silences, his questioning--and how in the moon of the croaking frogs, at the end of the conference, six months before his body died, that body danced barefoot at night in a moonlit meadow around a campfire to the sound of the drums of indigenous America, smiling. As if many deep and enduring questions in his life had finally been answered. (back to text)

16. Words like 'nouny,' 'verby,' 'nouniness,' etc., have been used as technical terms in linguistics for the past two decades. (back to text)

17. This point is very difficult to talk about in English, especially since verb is a noun, as are spirit, energy, process, and other words we might be tempted to use. In a more recent example, the title of the hit movie "Dances With Wolves" was interpreted as referring to the plural form of 'dance,' rather than as a name which includes a verb, since we don't tend to name things with verbs. (back to text)

18. Buckminster Fuller. I Seem To Be A Verb. Bantam Books, 1970. (back to text)

19. A Cree linguist at the Western and Native American Sciences Conference, Clem Ford, as an experiment began translating what Sa'kej Henderson was saying in English into Cree: he later reported that although Sa'kej had been using nouns in English, no nouns turned up in the Cree translation. (back to text)

20. This animating force is reminiscent of a spirit called the 'animal guardian' or 'keeper of the animals' by the Mi'kmaq people. From James Youngblood Sa'ke'j Henderson. Algonquian Spirituality: Balancing the Flux [in press negotiations]. (back to text)

21. It is useful to remember that this is an adaptation of the more fossilized gender systems we inherited from the two languages closest to us, German and French, which both obligatorily demand that all nouns have one of three genders - masculine, feminine or neuter. (back to text)

22. Note that the direction of time can flow either for us: we can say either "next" week (flowing away from us) or the "coming" week (flowing toward us). This may be because the flowing comes from metaphors instead of our grammar, which doesn't actually have tenses. (back to text)

23. For instance, Latin cant-abam, I sang, cant-o, I sing, cant-abo, I will sing. (back to text)

24. Grammar in Many Voices, by Marilyn Silva, in press negotiation. (back to text)

25. That is, the phone [d] is one allophone of the phoneme /d/ in a language, but the phoneme is potentially composed of more sounds than just [d] - maybe including [r] or [l] in some situations. The phone is concrete while the phoneme is more abstract, which is to say containing more potential for various manifestations in different contexts. (back to text)

26. S -> NP + VP (a sentence is composed of a noun phrase plus a verb phrase), and Reality -> Space + Time, but e = mc2 (energy is mass times the speed of light squared) and the Great Mystery -> Manifest * Unmanifest. You can add nouns together, but you have to multiply verbs in order to show relationships. (back to text)

27. Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality. 1956:59. (back to text)

28. Whorf's footnote: This idea is sometimes alluded to as the 'spirit of the Breath' (hikwsu) and as the 'Mighty Something' (?a?ne himu), although these terms may have lower and less cosmic though always awesome connotations. (back to text)

29. Owen Barfield and the Origin of Language (back to text)