What is the language of our land? I love to discover the origins of words, in our English language and in others. What always surprises me is that most words we use aren’t very old. A word in French may have only come into being in the 1700’s or the 1800’s. I’ve wondered “what the heck were we saying before that” The answer is that there were formerly many local dialects—many localized languages that emerged slowly and collaboratively between people and their land. Then, as groups consolidated in recent history, languages consolidated. Modern English is based on a dialect that emerged close to London; modern French is based on the Parisian dialect. Most of the other languages in France and England disappeared eventually. And the story is similar all over the world. But language really used to reflect the magic of what was around us. The grievous loss of these languages has created a certain disconnection world-wide from the ground beneath our feet.
I wonder about how language currently shapes our perceptions of the world. Martin Prechtel, a Mayan shaman and author often discusses how different the Mayan language is from English, not just word-wise but in how it effects the respective cultures. English separates us from everything else by using the verb “to be”. “The pine tree is green and tall.” It is over there, being green and tall on its own. In Mayan, he explains, there is no verb “to be”. Things don’t exist separately as they do in English, but are instead in relationship to one another. It is hard to even describe a parallel to this, but poetry and metaphor attempt to create that sense of relationship. Instead of “The pine tree is green and tall.” it might feel more like: “The pine tree reaches far into the sky, its green needles sparkling like the bright chest of a hummingbird in the sun.” This sort of description unifies; we see the tree in the sky, touching and related with the sky. We even see it reflected in a hummingbird’s chest. Suddenly, the tree is about a lot more than itself. When we listen to the land it doesn’t always mean with our ears, but with relationship and connection. What is it telling us? How is it connecting with everything there, with us? Our feet sink into mud, slide over grass, sun heats our skin, we leave tracks behind.
When language aligns with the land it came from, it is likely saying something very specific and necessary. If we want to align with our landscape, first we have to choose a place, stay there and make acquaintance with it. If there are still clues from local indigenous words and traditions, it is a great gift, but we will likely also need to listen directly to the land again to remember that relationship.