Those who live between languages see them. The barriers drawn through linguistic worlds.
Those who live between languages know them. The limitations of translation. The impossibility. It is as if you had to squeeze a whole world through the eye of a needle.
Because when you translate – from one language to another – it is not »just« words for which you seek a counterpart. Instead, you require an equivalent for wide, complex, multifaceted contexts. A perspective. A specific way of regarding the world.
»the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.«
When biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer first read the word Puhpowee – a word from the language of her ancestors, the Citizen Potawatomi, an indigenous people of North America – she was amazed that such a word even existed. As a biologist, scientist, and botanist, she felt the gap that the absence of this word in other languages created in her, but also in science.
Because what happens when you use the word Puhpowee? How do you view the world? In fact, another question seems even more remarkable: From which perspective do you regard the world? You look at the world from the perspective of the earth. Not from above, looking down at the plants that grow up to meet you, the human being. But from below, the very bottom. You look at the world from the earth’s perspective, up into the sky, past the human beings who constantly believe themselves to be at the very center of the world.
How would we speak differently had we lived in a language that revealed the world to us from the earth’s viewpoint? A language like that of the Citizen Potawatomi, in which plants are not spoken of disparagingly as »it,« but rather referred to as respectfully as humans, because they are understood as living beings that also have a perspective on this world? How would our perception change? How would we live differently? How would our relationship with the earth, with nature change? In an interview, Kimmerer described a situation in which she asked her environmental science students the following question. She asked: Do you love the earth?
They wholeheartedly agree that they love the earth. But when I ask them the question; »Does the earth love you back?« there’s a great deal of hesitation and reluctance and eyes cast down, like, oh, gosh, I don’t know. Are we even allowed to talk about that? That would mean that the earth had agency and that I was not an anonymous little blip on the landscape, that I was known by my home place.
The language of the Thaayorre in northern Australia is particularly impressive with regard to the perception of space and time. In Kuuk Thaayorre, no words for left and right exist; instead, the Thaayorre use cardinal points, saying, for instance: There’s an ant on your northwest arm. Or: Can you please push the cup to the south-southeast? Members of the Thaayorre people can accurately name the cardinal directions even in closed and roofed rooms as early as the ages of four or five. When two Thaayorre meet, they ask each other where the other is going when greeting each other – so the speakers are already encouraged to name the cardinal direction during small talk, which is such an elementary and self-evident part of their language and perception. When Lera Boroditsky tried to learn Kuuk Thaayorre, she experienced the following:
I had this cool experience when I was there. You know, I was trying to stay oriented because people were treating me like I was pretty stupid for not being oriented, and that hurt. And so I was trying to keep track of which way is which. And one day, I was walking along, and I was just staring at the ground. And all of a sudden, I noticed that there was a new window that had popped up in my mind, and it was like a little bird’s-eye view of the landscape that I was walking through, and I was a little red dot that was moving across the landscape. And then when I turned, this little window stayed locked on the landscape, but it turned in my mind’s eye. And as soon as I saw that happen, I thought, oh, this makes it so much easier. Now I can stay oriented.
When she told some Thaayorre people about what she considered her strange experience, they laughed and asked how else people should find their bearings in this world.
With its grammatical structures, rules, and norms, our language not only influences our perception of space, but also our perception of time. How does time flow for you? If I were to ask you, as a German or English speaker, to arrange images of a person chronologically from birth to old age, you would probably place childhood images on your left and arrange them by age stretching to the right. In all Latin languages, we write and read from left to right, comprehending time accordingly. Hebrew or Arabic speakers would do the opposite, arranging the images from right to left. But how would the Thaayorre arrange the pictures? The answer is sometimes from left to right, sometimes from right to left, sometimes from front to back, sometimes from back to front – depending on how the subject is sitting at the time. For Thaayorre, time flows from east to west. So if the subject were facing north, they would arrange the images from right to left. If they were facing the opposite direction, they would logically also arrange the images the other way around.
This perception of time and the world had a lasting impression on me. We can only truly comprehend the world view in and with which we were raised when we see it comparatively. Everything revolves around us – indeed around the »I« and its individual perception. I revolve, and so does the world with me. What would it be like if we spoke a language like Kuuk Thaayorre, which constantly reminds us that we are nothing more than a small dot on a huge map; that time flows over us, regardless of the »I« perspective? With what principles, what humility would we regard other people, living beings, nature?
And what happens when these languages are no longer spoken? What do we lose? We lose far more than just words. Far more than yet another name for something we all perceive and see. We lose a perspective on this world. We lose eyes. We lose what is beyond the narrow confines of our respective languages.
Like thousands of other indigenous children, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s grandfather was taken from his family when he was nine years old and forced to live for years in a boarding school where children were forcibly assimilated and not allowed to speak their native languages. Today, many indigenous languages in North America are endangered, including Potawatomi. One summer, Kimmerer attended a course to learn the language of her ancestors. The language class was eagerly anticipated, Kimmerer writes, because all the living speakers of Potawatomi were expected teach. And they came. On canes, with walking aids, in wheelchairs. Kimmerer counted them: »Nine. Nine fluent speakers. In the whole world. Our language, millennia in the making, sits in those nine chairs. The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women.«
One of the men told them how his mother hid him when the children were abducted, how he stayed behind as a »carrier of the language.« The man turned to the group: »We’re the end of the road. We are all that is left. If you young people do not learn, the language will die. The missionaries and the U.S. government will have their victory at last.«
Then, Kimmerer said, an elderly woman pushed her walker close to the microphone and said: »It’s not just the words that will be lost. The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world. It’s too beautiful for English to explain.«
No language captures the whole world. Each language captures it only partially. Each language only grasps and experiences as much as those people who have power and dominion within a language. Each linguistic world only reaches as far as the perception of the rulers and the powerful does. That is why people who wander back and forth between languages are necessary and crucial. People who extend languages, expand them. These are people who – although and precisely because they do not belong to the powerful and ruling class – introduce new perspectives into languages, along with their broad contexts, complexity and richness of facets.
People who know the meaning of aciziyet: weakness, helplessness, incapacity are the words that automatic translation software offers me when I search for an equivalent of this Turkish word. But aciziyet means so much more. A word that makes me look at the world from the bottom up. To feel powerlessness and helplessness, the absence of possibilities, the unattainability of things – and to endure. Yet I don’t consider this term negative. There is a strange freedom associated with it. For aciziyet also evokes the calm perception of a situation
to which a person is exposed. A liberated acceptance of one’s life circumstances. Not humiliating inferiority, but respectful deference. Perhaps the prudent, emancipated awareness of our nullity is one of the few truths we can grasp in its completeness. Our aciziyet.
To stand at the edge of our linguistic horizon, we must be aware of its existence. Our aciziyet. Our dependence on all those people who view the world differently than we do. So that we may be able to stand at the edge of our linguistic horizon and cross it with the help of others; into another language, into words that may not yet even exist.
»Mapalus is understood by the indigenous and diasporic Minahasan communities as a form of mutual aid,« writes Natasha Tontey – and thus describing not only a word, but also revealing an attitude to life and a philosophy which places people in relation to each other and to nature. A word that embodies a philosophy that could act as a model beyond the space of this language.
»Micchāmi Dukkaḍaṃ,« explains Nishant Shah, means »May all evil that has been done, be in vain.« Words that are meant to rob evil of its power and strength. They can also mean »I ask pardon from all living beings.« The performative power of language, for both good and evil, is symbolized by this word. Every word in the Shared Vocabulary conveys the power of language, which assumes different forms all over the world.
This vocabulary attempts the impossible. To enlarge the eye of the needle of the languages we speak. To reveal new perspectives from other languages. To broaden our view of the world. To break down barriers between languages. To free us from their limitations. To recognize humans elsewhere, the »other«, for what they are – human beings.
Kübra Gümüşay is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book Sprache und Sein (Language und Being), published by Hanser Berlin in spring 2020. She is cofounder of eeden, a feminist cocreation space in Hamburg, as well as numerous campaigns and associations – including the anti-racism campaign #SchauHin; the feminist alliance #ausnahmslos, which was awarded the Clara Zetkin Women’s Award in 2016; and the campaign »Organisierte Liebe« (Organized Love). She is a fellow of the Progressive Center and Associate Expert at the Center for Intersectional Justice. Her blog, »ein-fremdwoerterbuch.com« was nominated for the Grimme Online Award in 2011. In 2018, Forbes magazine ranked her among the top 30 under 30 in Europe in media and marketing.