How delighted we are when our children first begin to talk! What a miracle, what a joy! I have felt that joy and sense of the miraculous when that little being, my young child, could finally begin to share with me their wishes, thoughts, feelings, questions, and more – the first time they “used their words.” Even then, however, I was also aware of the drawbacks of learning our “native” spoken language. In the case of my own children, the language was English, and in learning this, I knew they would automatically be “pre-programmed” with the world-view inherent in English. This would limit where their minds could travel, just as learning a different “mother tongue” would limit their minds in a different way.
Many of us are largely oblivious to the ways our primary language shapes us, our understanding of who we are, our relationship with all that is, and our beliefs about what is possible, important, and valuable. Language reflects and transforms our understanding.
Early Friends surely understood the power of language as a shaper of thought and a reflection of what and who is valued. Many Friends were imprisoned for disobeying the implicit assumption of the “hierarchy of being” which the English grammar of the 17th and 18th centuries reinforced. Early Quakers objected strongly to the use of “ye/you” when addressing a single individual, as this usage showed deference based on rank, and instead, they addressed all people as “thee.” As George Fox explained: “I was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.”
This hierarchy of being within the English language remains very much with us in the 21st century. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, has written extensively about what she calls “the grammar of animacy” inherent in many Indigenous languages. She contrasts that with the objectification of the Living World intrinsic to the English language, perhaps most notably in our use of the word “it” to refer to fellow beings in the Living World. Would you call your grandmother “it”?! Kimmerer writes, “English encodes human exceptionalism, which privileges the needs and wants of humans above all others and understands us as detached from the commonwealth of life. . . It is a numbing word: it numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to cause harm, free of guilt, because we declare other beings to be less than ourselves, just things.”
Kimmerer proposes we replace the word “it” with “ki” (singular) and “kin” (plural) when referring to more-than-human life – rivers and river otters, mountain ash and mountains. “Ki” is a short bit of the Potawatomi word Aakibmaadiziiwin, meaning “a being of the living earth.” “It” would be reserved for industrial products. Currently, English speakers can’t differentiate; the other-than-human living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status. Bombs and bulldozers, butterflies and birch trees are all just “things” for our use.
There are countless other examples of ways that our language disconnects and isolates us. For instance, we speak of “housing developments” and “lots for sale,” while remaining generally oblivious to the countless other fellow beings – plants, animals, fungi – whose homes are destroyed in the creation of dwellings for humans. Even our use of the words “the environment” reflects a fundamental separation between humans and the rest of the Living World.
Perhaps “continuous revelation” may be leading us now to eschew our use of “it,” undo our hierarchy of being in referring to the many beings with whom we share the world, and instead, with our language, acknowledge God’s Commonwealth of Creation. What worldview is perpetuated by our language, and what horrific harm has been created by our worldview? Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Changing our language and our thinking may be one of the ways to stop some of the immense harm humans have caused, begin to heal our relationship with Creation and our fellow beings, and contribute to an Earth restored. ~~~
Mary Ann Percy carries a life-long spiritual concern for Earth and all our relations, and currently serves as an NPYM representative to Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW). She is a trained Joanna Macy facilitator in The Work that Reconnects (WTR), offers Earthcare programs for Friends’ Meetings and groups, and is a member of Bellingham Friends Meeting (NPYM).
To read more about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s thoughts on language, go to: orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature