Native American languages

The structure of some native American languages can give some insight into the way in which American Indian societies see and analyze the world. One example is the language of the Hopi. It provides a system to describe the world that is equally complete as Indo-European languages and at the same time entirely different.

The Hopi belong to the group of native American Indians known as Anasazi, today called the Pueblo, who live in the state of Arizona in the USA. The Anasazi civilization flourished around 1050 - 1300, but Pueblo society continues today in some 25 - 30 villages. The Hopi language does not operate on the standard system of Indo-European languages that verbs have three basic time forms (past, present and future). Hopi verbs do not use temporal forms but distinguish the three forms of (a) report, (b) expectation and (c) general statement. This makes translations obviously very difficult; but as a rough equivalence it can be said that the report corresponds to our past and presence and expectation to our future. We use the present tense also for the general statement form, although such statements are usually valid in all three time forms. (A statement such as "The Sun is round" is usually understood to apply in the past, present and future.)

The important aspect in the context of science, civilization and society is that the Hopi language does not differentiate between past and present. A Hopi sentence in report form is a sentence through which someone (who does not have to be, and mostly is not, the subject of the sentence but an imagined speaker) reports an observed fact. This has two implications.

Firstly, the fact can only be described through a sentence if it has been observed; its existence without the observer cannot be taken for granted. Secondly, the simultaneity of two events can only be established if they could be observed by the same person. Two events that occurred in two distant villages cannot be linked in time; in the report form they can be past or presence. There is indeed no Hopi word for "time."

It should not be assumed that the absence of a word for "time" is a shortcoming of the Hopi language. It is a consequence of a totally different method of understanding the laws of nature. A basic difference between our languages and native American languages like the Hopi language is that, while we make much use of substantives to describe objects, the Hopi language prefers the use of verbs to describe processes.

The table gives an example for the totally different way of thinking expressed in different languages, taken from the Shawnee language spoken in modern Oklahoma. The English sentences convey the message that there is not even the slightest similarity between the two described situations. The Shawnee sentences, on the other hand, are nearly identical, expressing the idea that the two situations spring from similar circumstances:

English Shawnee
I pull the branch aside. ni-l'th awa-' ko-n-a
I have an extra toe on my foot. ni-l'th awa-' ko-thite

The similarity in the two situations becomes clearer when the Shawnee sentence is analyzed: ni means "I". l'th awa describes the act or process of branching off. ko indicates a branch, usually of a tree but also of other things if they are identified. n in the first sentence indicates action with the hand, and a indicates that the action is performed by the speaker (in this case ni). The sentence thus says: "I pull apart something belonging to a tree where it branches off."

In the second sentence thite means "related to the toes" and the absence of additional information indicates that the situation refers to the speaker (in this case ni). The sentence thus expresses the situation: "An additional toe branches off my foot." In both cases the emphasis is not on the objects (branch or toe) but on the action (branching off).


Whorf, B. J. (1963) Language, thought and reality (edited by J. B. Carroll). The M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass. USA

Beginning with Kant, modern physics has moved away more and more from the description of objects with certain properties to the description of forces and fields responsible for processes. There is much to suggest that some native American languages would be better suited to modern physics than English. The Hopi had no need for modern physics, so they did not develop it. They would have found relativity a much more intuitive concept than the European scientists who developed it during the early 20th century.