What story shall we tell?

The community in which Jedek is spoken is more gender-equal than Western societies, there is almost no interpersonal violence, they consciously encourage their children not to compete, and there are no laws or courts. There are no professions either, rather everyone has the skills that are required in a hunter-gatherer community. This way of life is reflected in the language. There are no indigenous words for occupations or for courts of law, and no indigenous verbs to denote ownership such as borrow, steal, buy or sell, but there is a rich vocabulary of words to describe exchanging and sharing.

This is not a fable from a galaxy far, far away. It’s from a study by researchers at Lund University in Sweden. Jedek is spoken by a small community of people in the Malaysian highlands, and the language features described above are not uncommon among cultures not yet swept aside in the civilizational deluge. They are part of our human heritage.

It’s been known since forever that words both reflect and determine how we perceive the world, and what’s more, that it is possible to instrumentalise that tendency of language to determine perceptions. The relevant techniques are routinely learned and applied by advertisers, demagogues, preachers, storytellers and cognitive therapists, to name a few. What is less widely known, though, is the invisible way that a language’s deep-down warrants — what it does and doesn’t permit, what it privileges and what it plays down, what it values and what it disdains — shapes its speakers’ understanding and expectations of other people and themselves.

Now, contemplate for a moment what it means to live within the confines of a language-culture which values ownership and transactional self-interest to the extent that ours does…and wonder what that might do for our capacity to recognise and share our common interests. Our capacity to play, not compete. Our capacity to love.

I’m sure a healthy culture fills minds with a rich vocabulary for sharing, supporting, exchanging, listening and understanding, and offers only a meagre selection of words for those other things, best forgotten. A healthy culture wouldn’t even have words to express esteem for a “great deal”, or for obscene wealth, or for the act of blasting a junk automobile into orbit to attract “likes”, because those would be beyond all possibility of being esteemed.

But back to the speakers of Jedek. Their world is not a utopia and it’s not a new-age fantasy. They’re real people leading normal lives, albeit normal in a way that people from our culture would typically dismiss as less than cultured. But that reflects a deficit in our language and values, rather than in theirs.

As one of the Lund University researchers writes:

There are so many ways to be human, but all too often our own modern and mainly urban societies are used as the yardstick for what is universally human. We have so much to learn, not least about ourselves, from the largely undocumented and endangered linguistic and cultural riches that are out there.

6 Replies to “What story shall we tell?”

  1. Chris,
    I greatly enjoyed your post. We often forget just how much our language shapes our view of the world. Would you mind if I submit this to Resilience.org? I think their readers would enjoy it.

    1. Thanks for this, Chris. I clicked through to the listen to the video on the Lund University website and love the longer quote: “What story shall we tell? We already told the one about the leech.” That is so awesome that there is repertoire of stories that are told again and again and that one of them has a leech as a main character.
      Story-telling is high human culture without needing anything more than the space and time for sitting together.

    1. Its heartening isn’t it – we already told the one about the leech!

      It reminded me of two small people in my house deciding which DVD to watch. Despicable Me 2! No, Hotel Transylvania!! No-o! We watched that last week!!!

      Although the comparison doesn’t flatter techno culture.

  2. Chris,
    We had a good rule about which DVD to watch. The kids had to all agree or no movie! It was hilarious at times watching them go through this process of at first feeling empowered “If I don’t agree he can’t watch a movie” to cooperative because they realized that whatever they did to the other was likely to be done back to them. Since most of the time they both really wanted to watch a movie they eventually would settle on one. They also found that trading worked fairly well too “Lets watch what you want this time and what I want next time.” I loved the fact that it took all responsibility for arbitrating out of my hands.
    Life lessons!

  3. great insight by looking (and really seeing) others.
    so often it seems that we cannot help but project our own overlays, POV, onto what we see. Cultural autism it seems, theory of mind stuff, inability to intuitively know others, always and only seeing through ones own lens, a complete failure of imagination and empathy. And for me, having felt for a long number of years, that one of the basic splits came a long long time ago where so called western civilization morphed from so called christianity, where one of the central tenets was to treat others as they would be treated, love thy neighbor as thyself and all the variations, where it morphed through english law from feudalism, divine right of kings and nobility to ownership of property, institution of rents, etc, Great Mahele stuff here in Hawaii, thence into capitalism, where the central tenet includes the concept of buying low and selling (to your brother) high. or in fact selling your brother outright. and calling it normal… and the cost of doing busines, and getting a tax writeoff for the advertising to sell the lies… what a system… ah but i didnt set out to complain. keep up the thoughtful postings

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