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.