Chatterbox climate summits are made for the anointed ones, those linguistic savvy English-speaking leaders who prate about diplomacy in a searing world. That’s how a not so welcoming COP21 caught the attention of the global community late last year. No matter how articulate, impassioned or defiant arguments are posed to fossil fuel extracting, carbon emitting and fracking tyrants, English, the primary language used at international climate change conferences, leads to a tunnel opening as dim as the tunnel itself. To shine a light on the beauty of, and our material-spiritual connection to this planet, we must turn not to the language of development and progress but to the nearest indigenous languages. That said, this article is nothing more than a hodgepodge of English jawing. Despite my shortcomings, it should sweep the proverbial dust of inspiration off a shoulder or two and move mind and body to embrace indigenous words and phrases. Learn them. Pronounce them calmly and respectfully. You’re, in fact, speaking to the majesty of the wind, birds, and trees. Maybe you’ll pick up not only words but, the epistemological wealth stored in indigenous languages and planet earth will be afforded mercy and grace. Learn them fast! Enduring Voices and The National Geographic Society have confirmed that, on average, a language dies every 14 days. English is not on that somber list.
Empire-status aphorisms—The sun never sets on the British Empire and English is the language of business—didn’t emerge from thin air. They’ve long pampered conceited notions of language superiority, recklessly crisscrossing the globe to the drum roll of war, to the ceaseless tunes of conquest, colonization, and plunder. Irony has since traveled from the perilous dawn of the industrial revolution to cold meals served at COP21 and other climate change conferences. How else are we to digest history? Over the past 500 years, after so much roiling and devastation of indigenous forms of organization and production, English attempts to redeem itself by saving the planet.
Tribes and communities are structured around the ineffable spirit and soul of languages. Verbal communication is one of the ways in which tangible and ethereal meaning are bestowed upon our physical presence on earth. Even rudimentary observation of indigenous languages informs us that, prior to Euro-colonization of the so-called New World, their languages incorporated specific terms that interlinked the spirit and soul of the human-animal with the spirit and soul of nature and cosmos. English hasn’t done nearly as much to inform us about those intrinsic bonds. Once that split had been rendered normal, and civilized in English-speaking societies, fracking, pipelines, refineries, and transnational polluters like Exxon, BP, and Chevron abused and raped mother earth with impunity. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a native from Marshall Island, stood at a fossil fuel divestment protest outside of COP21 and recited her poem titled Tell Them.
“We don’t know of the politics or the science but we see what’s in our own backyard,” she declaimed.
A degree in rocket science was never needed to understand that something wasn’t right. From Turtle Island (United States) to Jamaica, India to Grenada, Fiji to Ghana, and so many others over the past half millennium, English-speakers have embarked on a planetary crusade with little to no regard for the traditions and languages of indigenous people. That the faithful predecessors of anthropocentricity ignored the relevance of native cultures should come as no surprise. Corporate CEOs, PR reps, lobbyists, and the political bedfellows of companies that breed global pollution rarely, if at all, speak and act in accordance to nature’s vibrations. They are the progenies of an inglorious past dating back to the late 18th century when toxic chemical manufacturing processes went absolutely bonkers from Britain to the United States. Since then, English may have become the prime language that has, paradoxically, grown in popularity worldwide while migrating furthest away from its capacity, if it ever possessed one, to rekindle holistic bonds between wo(man) and nature. However, the links between mother earth and her disciples, untainted by English-speaking colonization, are solemnly conveyed when we hear terms such as Abya Yala, Amma, Atabey, and Pachamama. To characterize those indigenous words as concepts meaning mother-goddess and nothing else is a clear-cut case of traduttore, traditore. Comparatively speaking, English is rife with etymological deficiencies. To truly appreciate the full breadth of their meanings, one must toss English lexicon aside and delve into Kuna, Dogon, Taíno, and Quechua languages, cosmologies, and cultures. Only then can we truly gauge how far the intellectual architects of the industrial revolution veered from sacred paths safeguarding mother earth.
Reminder—English won’t become extinct two weeks from now. The Environmental Justice Foundation estimates that somebody is displaced by climate change or weather-related disaster every
second. Over the past six years, the total number of climate refugees has reached 140 million people, surpassing the number of refugees fleeing war and persecution. They come from India, Syria, Haiti, The Marshall Islands, societies that don’t traditionally speak English. Demonization and ridicule of so- called primitive languages accompanied the neglectful advance of the language in which I dispatch these words. If you’ve made it this far in the article and your indignation is not only reserved for those who’ve raped and recklessly shamed mother-earth, but also moves you to learn indigenous words and phrases, then maybe hope remains. Al Gore, Naomi Klein, James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and other fine English-speaking activists and scientists have yet to get their points across to the makers of pollution, climate change. How can they? The destroyers of worlds horse-trade in their language of choice.
Ko taku reo taku ohooh (My language is my awakening). It’s never too late to embrace planet-rejuvenating epistemologies deposited in Maori and other indigenous languages.
BIO: Jun Cola is a translator who has a BA (cum laude) in Portuguese from the University of New Mexico. A FLAS Fellow, Jun is currently traveling around South America.