Traveling through countries where English was not the main language has given me a greater appreciation of the role language plays in shaping our world. In all its forms, spoken, written or signed, language is an integral part of a culture. The words that fill our lexicon give us a vocabulary with which to describe the world we inhabit. It determines what and how we perceive the world around us. In a way we both create and constrain our society by our language.
Given the often marked differences in the way different cultures see the world it is not always easy to completely translate ideas and knowledge from one language to another. Consider for instance the word hózhó from the the Navajo Nation of North America. It loosely translates as a combination of English words ‘peace, balance, beauty and harmony’. Or in the words of Navajo poet Lyla June Johnston:
There is no direct translation from Diné Bizaad,
the Navajo language, into English
but every living being knows what hozho means.
Hozho is every drop of rain,
every leaf on every tree,
every feather on the bluebird’s wing.
Hozho is undeniable beauty.
Hozho is in every breath that we give to the trees.
And in every breath they give to us in return.
Hozho is reciprocity.(1)
Alarmingly in the past century there has been a rapid decline in the number of spoken languages in the world. As a language disappears so does the knowledge it contained of a particular place and way of life. Replacing languages that have developed over time in in concert with a particular group of people and the land they lived in, with colonial languages like English, Spanish and French aids the spread of a culture that has lost its roots. This is a culture that no longer respects or values the particularities of a place and what is involved in living in harmony with that land.
An important part of living more sustainably will be relearning to live in accordance with the rhythms of local ecosystem. Food, housing and even sources of energy will need to be appropriate to the area we live in. The standardisation of the western culture that is being pushed onto every part of the globe pays no head to the opportunities and constraints of a particular place. It comes from a mindset that believes the world is an inert playground for humans to manipulate as desired. If we see ourselves instead as one part of a cosmic web of life then we will recognise that we need to work with the rest of this web. To do this we need to first have a coherent understanding of our world, our place in it and the language with which to transmit this knowledge.
The average urbanite is exposed to 100s if not 1000s of adverts on a daily basis and is more familiar with brand names than the names of plants and animals. If we forget the names of all the different plants and collectively refer to them as plants we also overlook the characteristics of that species including how we could use it for food or medicine or construction. It is no surprise that the rapid loss of species around the world is largely ignored. If we don’t know that there ever was a Bramble Cay melomys, then how can we care that this rodent was the most recent in a long list of species to disappear forever since the arrival of the British in Australia.
Each of us can start by learning the names of our local plants, animals and natural phenomenon and understanding how they fit together to form a healthy ecosytem. As we regain the words of our land we will start to fit back into its rhythms and in time weave a society more in tune with both the limits and wealth of our planet: a society that has hózhó.