Native Languages and 'science'

Don Osborn dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Tue Mar 9 08:24:22 UTC 2004

Very interesting thread.  Here are three quick thoughts...

1) In some languages the term used for "science" is "knowledge."  At the
same time there may be more than one word for knowledge (to know) as well as
related terms.  I hope it doesn't sound too pedantic to suggest to step back
and take in the larger semantic field. In Bambara, for one W. African
example, the verb ka don (with the o being an open o, written as a reversed
c) = to know, and donniya means knowledge in many senses including science
broadly speaking.  In this language some prefixes can make different kinds
of knowledge (someone suggested that this is the process in some languages).

2) The "scientific method" may or may not be a unique contribution of the
West (even with the pitfalls of misapplication of reductionist logic), but
research is something people have done in one way or another for ages.
Someone suggested a connection with shamans. One might also make a
connection with farmers. The genesis of agriculture must have been quite
interesting, involving need, observation, trial and error, communication,
passing on, and an often forgotten dimension, fun.  In short, science under
whatever name.  And this continued and continues in many ways.

3) While packing more books (for moving), I took a look at a passage from a
book by Malidoma Patrice Somé (The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Tarcher/Putnam
1998) in which he compared his mentor to a "gifted indigenous scientist, the
kind that Westerners might call a shaman."  Though not an academic title,
this work may have interesting comparative perspectives on indigenous belief
systems.  Among other things he also describes some aspects of his
experience in colonial (mission) boarding schools and return to his Dagara
culture - that and language are discussed in the introduction.

Don Osborn

----- Original Message -----
From: Mia - Main Red Pony
Sent: Tuesday, March 09, 2004 3:23 AM
Subject: Re: Native Languages and 'science'

good ness gracious, this was Moonhawk and Sakej Henderson. Moonhawk was a
dear, dear friend who passed away 2 years ago. I met Sakej only through his
words. . . but Moonhawk held Sakej in highest regard.

Thank you for this email; when I communicate with others, I am reminded
about how much a "Western" concept people seem to think science is. In fact,
the people who lived here before the colonists had calendars, ways of
measuring, building, healing, understanding, learning, and to my great
pleasure, stealing horses.

I think of these things as "science". I guess most people don't.

But I liked your email, and the charming reminder, through the Universe,
from my beloved friend, who I truly miss.

----- Original Message -----
From: MM Smith
Sent: Monday, March 08, 2004 12:32 PM
Subject: Native Languages and 'science'

I humbly precede this by saying that I am curious, not an expert, and can
only glimpse the ideas. Too, I know nothing of the wasicun linguist who's
site I sampled and pasted here, but am hoping the ideas will add to the

The question seems to need to move quickly beyond what words exist in a
given language for a given western scientific or mathematical concept, but
rather how do Native languages relate to indigenous ways of describing the

In reference to a conference between some Native people and some scientists
in 1992?

Historic as far as Native Americans are concerned

(Sa'ke'j:)* It was an amazing experience to get that kind of respect, for
most Native Americans, to be sitting at the table with the greatest
scientist on some kind of cognitive equality, and come to certain agreements
that our language may better describe the subatomic world... than their
language. but they don't know any other language, and they are very curious
about why we would have pre-knowledge of something hat their methods and
rules are just arriving at.
Noun/verb-dominated Languages

And what did Whorf mean by verb-dominated language? {Benjamin Whorf] Whereas
every sentence in English must properly have a subject, a noun or noun
phrase, and a verb, many if not most Native American languages can have
sentences with no nouns at all. 'Rehpi,' a full sentence in Hopi referring
to a celestial event, means 'flashed,' where we have to say 'the lightning
flashed.' But this goes much further: sa'ke'j says that when he's speaking
mi'kmaq back on the reserve, he can go all day long without ever uttering a
single noun. this statement is mind-boggling to most English speakers. So
much of our facts and knowledge are wrapped up in nouns, so what would all
that knowledge look like in a language that doesn't value nouns in the same
way? This includes all concepts, all the way to 'god'.

(Sa'ke'j:) We don't have one god. You need a noun language to have one god.
We have forces. All forces are equal and you are just the amplifier of the
forces. The way you conduct your life and the dignity you give to other
things gives you access to other forces.

Even trees are verbs instead of nouns: The Mi'kmaq named their trees for the
sound the wind makes when it blows through the trees during the autumn about
an hour after sunset, when the wind usually comes from a certain direction.
So one might be like a 'shu-shu' something, and another more like a
'tinka-tinka' something.

Although physics in the western world has been essentially the quest for the
smallest noun (which used to be a-tom, 'that which cannot be further
divided'), as they went inside the atom things weren't acting like nouns
anymore. The physicists were intrigued with the possibilities inherent in a
language that didn't depend on nouns but could move right to verbs when the
circumstances were appropriate.

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