Every language is an old growth forest of the mind
Updated: Sep 20
We are quite clever, we human beings. We aren’t the strongest of animals or the best at hearing or smelling or seeing. We may not even be the smartest. And yet, over thousands of years, finding ourselves in vastly different parts of the planet, we have figured out how to adapt and thrive. We have accumulated knowledge of the earth and its ways that is vaster than science can tell or libraries can retain.
One advantage is our ability to learn from one another. The stirrup as an aid to horse riders traveled from India and China along the Silk Road and may have contributed to the rise of the feudal class in Europe. The introduction of the potato from the Americas may have contributed to the downfall of the same class, as well as explosions in populations and shifts of power from the Mediterranean countries to northern Europe. The Internet has vaulted the people of many countries into global contact.
What we learn can make us stronger. It can also blind us. When we assume that what we know is ultimate and best and that every one else would be better off acting on the same knowledge, we may do harm rather than good.
In my youth, I did my best to convince Meo tribes in Thailand to change their use of indigo dye so that it wouldn’t stain the skin of customers to whom we were selling clothing made from Meo fabric. Fortunately they refused. Indigo dye contains chemicals that slow the spread of yellow fever and malaria. This was the first in a lifetime of humbling lessons about wisdom and understanding that lies outside my own culture and science.
Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist who insists on drawing our attention to wisdoms that are not our own. He argues passionately that global forces that eliminate other languages and knowledge impoverish all of us as human beings. A species of beetle that becomes extinct may have held the cure to cancer. A language that becomes extinct represents the loss of a library of lessons learned about surviving and thriving as a species on this planet.
His is the statement that “Every language is an old growth forest of the mind.” And his is the observation that within two generations we will lose half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy.
If you aren’t familiar with Davis, please look him up. You’ll find him on the Internet at National Geographic, where he is Explorer-in Residence, or as one of the speakers in the extraordinary TED Talks series. His 2009 CBC Massey Lectures are captured in the book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” For those of us who work with other cultures it is an important read.
Final note on languages and culture.
The expression of gender in ways other than traditional male and female is not a first-time Western invention. Many ethnic cultures worldwide have long recognized and accommodated more than two genders, either through social recognition or even legal protection. As humanitarian workers, it is important to recognize the diversity of gender identities that exist around the world and understand how different societies view them differently.
In many countries in South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania there are multiple terms used to describe people who do not conform to binary definitions of gender identity such as “muxes” from Mexico or “waria” from Indonesia which translates as "man-woman". In India for example transgender people are referred to by various names including hijra which has been used since ancient times when they were respected members of society with specific roles within their communities such as healers or spiritual leaders. This goes back centuries before Western culture even began discussing nonbinary genders so this concept certainly predates modern ideas about self-expression outside the traditional male/female dichotomy.
See Jack Weatherford’s book, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas transformed the world, (Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1988) pages 59-79. It is estimated that three-fifths of current global crops, including potatoes, beans, peanuts and maize corn came from American aboriginal peoples.