Our Language of Disconnection

What Our Language Says about Our Relationship with the Natural World

By John McIlwain

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”
-Frantz Fanon

Last month I wrote about how the modern West has lost its connection to the land and to nature. The challenge is to find ways to reestablish this critical relationship that we once had but lost with the rise of materialism, science, and industry.

This disconnection is evident in our language, which is important because language defines us, and limits what we see, experience, and even think. Recent research in cognitive science confirms this, though this power of language has been known for centuries. Lera Boroditsky, a linguistic philosopher and Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD, says:

“… [R]esearch shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality.”

What, then, does our language say about how we construct reality? Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American and Professor of Environment and Biology at SUNY, writes in Braiding Sweetgrass that English has no “grammar of animacy,” which she defines as a language in which animacy, aliveness, is attributed to all of nature.

“… [I]n 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. … In Potowami…, rocks are animate as are mountains and water and fire and places.”

In English, on the other hand, we call the elements of the natural world “things.” This creates what Martin Buber would call an “I-It” relationship with the world, one of subject and object, while indigenous languages create an “I-Thou” relationship, one of subject to subject, a relationship of intimacy.

Our “I-It” relationship with nature is at the heart of our current environmental catastrophe. As a student said to Kimmerer:

“Doesn’t this mean that speaking English, thinking in English, gives us permission to disrespect nature? By denying everything else the right to be a person? Wouldn’t it be different if nothing was an it?”

Quantum science, however, is challenging this illusion of separation, having discovered that there is no separation between observers and the observed, that they are in an intimate, reciprocal relationship. Professor Karen Litfin of the University of Washington, mentioned last month in the CMB newsletter, wrote:

“… [T]he message of modern science… [is] that we are the astonishing result of nearly 15 billion years of cosmological evolution and 5 billion years of terrestrial evolution. The so-called autonomous individual is inextricably reliant on a vast web of external ecosystems and internal microbial networks.”

Indeed, modern science is recognizing what wisdom traditions and indigenous peoples have always known, that the world is alive and we are intimately interconnected with it. Our language, however, and with it our worldview, is still founded on the old Cartesian materialism.

To restore our connection to the land and nature we need a new language, a new way to speak. A new language, one where we hold the world in an “I-Thou” relationship, can change our worldview and how we construct reality, and can lead to new a new, connected relationship with nature. Next month we will explore how this new language might evolve.

John McIlwain is the director of the Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior program. 

Image courtesy of unsplash.com

One comment on “Our Language of Disconnection”

  1. Ann Hadley says:

    Thank you for this article.

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