Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Verbs Not Nouns: How language can shape alternate worldviews

Through indigeneous languages which don't objectify and categorise, we can learn to see our relationship to nature and the causes of the climate crisis very differently, writes Calvin Po.

Verbs not nouns Giyu Tjauvaljian Yu Chieh Wu

Giyu Tjauvaljian and Yu-Chieh Wu at the Verbs Not Nouns online event, Festival of Debate 2023.

Dark Matter Labs

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language.

Benjamin Whorf - Science and Linguistics

What’s in a name?

The question of how language shapes how we see the world has been occupying linguists and philosophers for years. Take the name of our city, for example. ‘Sheffield’ is of Anglo-Saxon origin, meaning open land (field) by the River Sheath, and Sheath itself meaning ‘divide’ or ‘separate’. Similarly, the Sheffield neighbourhood of Grimethorpe was named by Vikings after the small farm of Grym in Old Norse. Who exactly Grym was might be lost to time, but we feel the presence of our city’s rivers today when we think of Sheffield as a place.

Both these place names are defined in relation to property or things: a river and someone’s farm. This reflects how English is a noun-based language. But this is not always the case. In the Paiwanese language indigenous to Taiwan, for example, there’s a place called savalivali, meaning ‘where you can feel wind’ – identified by how you viscerally feel the place.

Linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf have given their name to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that language shapes how we perceive and think about the world around us. Could it be that noun-based languages encourage us to objectify and categorise the world into isolated, static 'things'? Could verb-based languages instead help us understand the world through its complex, entangled, changing relationships?

How we dissect nature is not just an academic talking point. Understanding our world is critical in shaping how we respond to the climate crisis we face. Might viewing our environment as a passive object – where resources can be extracted and pollution dumped – be one of the causes of this crisis in the first place?

Earlier this year, Opus and Dark Matter Labs hosted a discussion with Giyu Tjauvaljian and Yu-Chieh Wu to share lessons from Indigenous languages on how we can break free from English’s noun-based worldview and rediscover our relationships with the world.

Giyu is part of the Paiwanese people indigenous to Taiwan. “Indigenous populations had limited rights and were subject to government pressure to assimilate them into Mandarin-speaking society,” he recalls.

Despite this, Paiwanese culture and language was preserved through oral traditions and storytelling passed on by elders, especially their worldview. This includes supernaturalism (cemas), where the world, including mountains, rivers and ancestors, are embodied by beings. Land too is not an inert object but an experience: tja 'adjungan-an, meaning ‘where we stand by foot’. Nature is not just a passive backdrop, but is made up of active beings. So how the Paiwan people interact with and use nature’s resources is built on relationships and bound by customary laws (si-laing-an), and breaking these customs results in taboo (palisi).

Another example is the word q-em-aljup, which loosely translates to ‘hunting’, but in doing so loses the embedded nuances of the Paiwanese worldview.

The origin literally means ‘go clean the mountain', or 'clean out the superfluous [leaves, trees, animals, stones] from forest’. Far from hunting meaning indiscriminate killing, here it refers to a practice done in accordance with deep-rooted ecosystem knowledge, bound by si-laing-an and palisi rules unique to each group and inherited from generations past. These include taboos against q-em-aljup in certain areas, during breeding seasons or against pregnant animals.

Rather than being seen as a personal achievement, the practice of q-em-aljup requires thanking the animal for what it provided and sharing the meat with the community. From the very basic act of sourcing food, the Paiwanese people do so in attempted balance with, rather in separated extraction from, the natural world, as reflected in their language.

Yu-Chieh, a linguist based at the University of Hawai’i, explains that this awareness of the wider ecosystem is also embedded in Hawaiian culture’s sense of place. Land is divided under the ahupua’a system, where each ahupua’a would be organised along a watershed and include a part of the uka (mountain), kula (plain) and kai (sea). The size of each ahupua’a depended on the natural resources available to support a population sustainably. Rather than imposing human-centric ways of dividing land – often straight lines on a map – how land and its resources are managed are recognised as entangled with an ecosystem with its own natural limits.

There is the valid concern over how we can learn from Indigenous wisdom respectfully. Fang-Jui Chang, Responsible Innovation Lead at Dark Matter Labs, reflects on this: “Indigeneity is both an action that we take and a relationship that we have with nature and place. If we feel a connection with the land and have a desire to protect it, then we are practising a form of indigeneity.”

Verbs not nouns

By opening our minds to Indigenous knowledge, we can reflect and challenge our own preconceptions and seek ways of deepening our relationships with our own contexts. As Giyu reflects on experiencing both Western and Paiwanese worldviews: “The conversation reminds me I am a lucky man – it helps me recognise the difference between two ways of knowing.”

We hope to put into practice these pluralistic ways of knowing, starting with one of the rivers that flows through this city. Opus Independents, Dark Matter Labs, and a coalition of partners are part of the River Dôn Project, which aims to demonstrate different ways of relating to the river, from how we understand to how we care for it.

To address the complex challenges of the future, we need new (and old) ways of knowing – and to tell ourselves different stories about our place in the world. Perhaps this needs to start with the very language we use.

Filed under: 

More Climate & Environment

Mind the (emissions) gap

Carbon emissions are still increasing as global policies fail to address climate change. Could systems thinking be the way forward?

More Climate & Environment