A journey through endangered and minority languages that reveals diverse ways of relating to land and nature.
Philippa Bayley and Neville Gabie, with Missinak Kameltoutasset (Marie-Émilie Lacroix) and contributors to Living-Language-Land
The languages we speak shape much of how we understand the world around us, including our connections to land and nature. But as fast as we are losing species from our planet, so we are losing languages that offer diverse ways of seeing. And with that, we run the risk of a poverty of both experience and imagination in responding to the climate and ecological crises we are facing today.
Living-Language-Land is a journey through endangered and minority languages that reveal diverse ways of relating to land and nature. Through this project we shared twenty-six words in the run-up to the 2021 climate talks (COP26) to bring a global audience fresh inspiration for tackling our environmental crisis.
Living-Language-Land is a journey through endangered and minority languages that reveal diverse ways of relating to land and nature.
The project, of which we are creative co-producers, is the fruit of an unusual collaboration between us, an artist (Neville) and a scientist (Philippa). Through his work as an artist responding to particular landscapes and communities, Neville became increasingly aware of how deeply and intricately language, landscape, and culture are entwined. Spending time at Halley Research Station, Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, with a Noongar Elder in Western Australia, and more recently with the Wampanoag Tribe in Mashpee, Massachusetts, where the First Nation’s language is being revived, Neville understood the importance of both listening to and offering a platform for often unheard voices.
In turn, Philippa was inspired by the life-affirming message in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: the possibilities of a “grammar of animacy,” of a deep reciprocity and respect between human and more-than-human beings. She was searching for a soft but powerful approach to shifting conversations in the environmental movement.
Living-Language-Land came alive with two questions: How can we create a platform for the knowledge and experiences of minority and endangered language holders so that their words reach new audiences? And how can we reflect on and share the powerful strategies for sustainable living that these languages reveal to help look afresh at our environmental crisis?
The project has become a platform for a set of diverse voices from around the world to offer insights from their respective languages. We felt that the best way to honor these contributions was not to try and analyze them or overlay our own interpretations on them, but rather to present them here in a loose weaving. The main thread of this weaving is from Innu Elder Missinak Kameltoutasset (Marie-Émilie Lacroix) from Mashteuiatsh, Québec, Canada. A midwife, social worker, and activist, Missinak teaches Aboriginal Culture at University of Québec at Rimouski and is very engaged in the recognition of and “reconciliation” with First Nations. Interwoven with her words are quotes from other project contributors.
I and you: The inclusive we, where we are all equals
Language: Nehluen, Innu language
Region: Nitassinan, a territory that spreads from southwestern Québec to the northeastern coast of Labrador (Canada)
Contributor: Missinak Kameltoutasset (Marie-Émilie Lacroix)
We know that it is possible to learn a language using a dictionary and a grammar or by taking a course. As we devote more time to it, we learn words, a basic vocabulary, and sufficient pronunciation to enable us to understand and speak. We all learned the mother tongue of our family when we were toddlers, but only very few of us looked for the deeper meaning of that language and realized its importance in influencing our lives. To undertake this search is to embark on an exceptional journey that can transform our entire lives. This is a journey I have experienced in investigating the words of my own language, Nehluen.
Nehluen is the common language used throughout the Innu communities in the province of Québec, Canada, from the southwestern region of Lac-Saint-Jean to the northeastern coast of Labrador, passing by the lower Côte-Nord region. The Innu alphabet is based on eleven consonants and seven vowels. It is a complex language for a new student to learn, but also very rewarding because it is so pictorial. The words represent more than a simple concept; they create a picture, a scene, animate a thought, define a precise action linking it with the environment. The Innu words are very exact, descriptive, and full of life.
Pond; lake; adult woman’s vagina
Language: Mysk Kubun
Region: Central Colombia
Contributor: Comunidad Muisca CONA, Pedagogías Ancestrales
From the waters emerged Mother Bachué, who gave birth to our people and taught us how to live well in our territory. The waters sing stories; siwa speaks to us and reminds us of the humidity of our first vessel, our mother’s womb.
The underlying reason is that there is one vocabulary suited for village life and another one for the bush. These nuances are linked to the corresponding environment, which itself is indissociable from thought, and therefore from the verbal expression. Since the landscape changes as we move from the South to the North, and from the East to the West, we also see it is reflected in the words used to designate the specific features of each place. It is in fact this precision of the words that enables us to understand the relationships that exist between the flora and fauna who live there. The human being must adapt to the decor, as s/he is a part of it. S/he is included in this big circle where interdependence prevails.
The ancestors and owners of the land
Region: Ladakh, India
Contributors: Tsetan Angmo and Padma Rigzin, featuring the Sardak of Ladakh
“The owners of the land and the rocks, please accept our food.”
Sardak means much more than “the ancestors and owners of the land.” The ways of being of the sardak enabled them to live here for thousands of years. The landscape has been indelibly marked by their presence, where they and their livestock left trails. The sardak are absent but present; they are like ghosts.
To better understand the base of the Innu language, we have to position ourselves in the context of circular thought. A human being and his/her environment are indissociable in this kind of thought. The pronoun “we” will serve as an example to better understand the possible shades of meaning. If I wanted to speak of a “we” that includes both me and (singular or plural) you, then I would use tshinanu. The prefix tshi– corresponds to “you” in all its forms. If I wanted to speak about “we,” but in a way that is excluding you (whether singular or plural), I would say nińan (with the accent on the second “n”). Tshinanu — the inclusive form of we — invites sharing, community life. There are no fences in the word tshinanu. It is a collective “we,” an open hand extended to others, inviting them to be a part of the circle. It also correspondingly tells a story, the story of the community of life of the person who speaks or writes. This word brings the land, the animals, the plants, and the people into a mutual relationship within the same pronoun.
The practice of barter and exchange
Region: Peruvian Andes
Contributors: The communities of the Pisac Potato Park and Chalakuy Maize Park
Chalay embodies the Andean concept of value and reciprocity. The exchanges strengthen the relationships between family members and friends from different agricultural zones. Foods and seeds are also members of the family. When seeds are exchanged, the new seeds become “daughters-in-law.” These new family members need to be treated with great care and respect so they will produce well.
The exclusive “we,” nińan, represents the person who is speaking about something, excluding the listener or the group of listeners. Take, for example, a hunter who speaks about the moment when he was alone with the deer. He’ll say nińan because, of course, the listeners weren’t there with him at that exact moment with the deer. The precision of the word paints a very clear picture, defining everyone’s role in the scene being described.
A traditional open wooden fishing boat built without a keel
Language: Northumbrian Coastal speech
Region: Northumbrian Coast, United Kingdom
Contributors: Katrina Porteous and Northumbrian fisher families
Coble is more than just a boat. Built by eye, without a plan, its lines evolved over centuries for sail, to respond economically to the wind and local sea conditions.
Each coble brought human lives into direct, daily contact with powerful, unpredictable forces of nature.
Speaking a language is a lot more than using words, as it also defines identity and belonging. It draws a portrait of the person’s native origin. To speak of the area in Québec inhabited by the Innu peoples, we use the word Nitassinan, “our land,” which also speaks to our inside land, our roots. For the traditional land of our families in the bush we say nutshimit. It represents the land of silence, the inside discourse, the place of personal discovery, without any pressure. When someone introduces him/herself and gives the name of his/her community, people have an idea of the individual through the territory, which in turn speaks of a particular culture and way of life of the people living there, whether nomadic or sedentary.
Region: Northeastern Namibia
Contributors: ‡Gakaci Thaddeus Chedau, Mbo
We say, “When the rain walks on its legs through our land.”
All places that have names in our land have water. There is no Khwe place name where there is no water.
When an Innu person is cut off from his/her territory, it deeply severs the bond to his/her identity. It means a loss of living roots, like becoming a stranger to him/herself. As a result, the words, loaded with context, lose their bearings in the new environment. There is no more silence, there are no roots. It is exactly this kind of broken bond, this deep wound that best describes placing Indigenous Peoples in reserves and residential schools, and healing will only be found by a return to the tradition. Let’s remember that the survival of our nations following these traumatic events rests on the shoulders of our Elders, who proudly protected our culture through oral tradition.
From generation to generation, our teachings say that the earth doesn’t belong to us, but rather we belong to her, bearing in her our own distinctive roots.
Our environment is the land, the forest, the plants, the insects, the animals, the water, the air, and the human beings who are the stewards of the Creator’s gift. An interdependent circle of life. From generation to generation, our teachings say that the earth doesn’t belong to us, but rather we belong to her, bearing in her our own distinctive roots.
(Thank you, Goodbye)
What we heard over and over again through our conversations with speakers of minority and endangered languages was a language of relationship, where the things that matter don’t happen “out there” but in the intimate sphere that implicates all beings, seen and unseen. We learned so much from these conversations and want to offer a heartfelt thank you to all of the project contributors.
Our ambition for Living-Langauge-Land is that it may become an inspirational tool for educators, students, researchers, and creatives to engage with a diversity of perspectives and worldviews that are both challenging and thought-provoking. We hope these words and the stories behind them may infuse their way into the thinking of many different minds, where they will compost and germinate new ideas. We also hope Living-Language-Land will be a useful platform for all our contributors to make their culture-strengthening work, and the challenges and opportunities they face, accessible to a wider audience.
Acknowledgments: The Living-Language-Land project was funded by the British Council (U.K. government) as one of their Creative Commissions for COP26. This project was possible through the generous sharing of knowledge from more than thirty people from minority and endangered language communities around the world.
Philippa Bayley is a scientist, research manager, and public engagement practitioner. She relishes helping people have creative conversations that matter—about our relationship with nature and about the cycles of living and dying. She lives and works in Bristol, United Kingdom.
Neville Gabie is a visual artist born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His work responds to specific landscapes and communities of people, exploring an intimate relationship to place. Collaborations with the public, artists, writers, musicians, and scientific researchers are central to his practice. He lives and works in Stroud, United Kingdom.