Davi Kopenawa led the successful movement to gain his people an independent homeland in Brazil. The book he wrote with anthropologist Bruce Albert is already fascinating, though I have only just begun.

What strikes me most so far are the remarks about the Yanomami language. The introduction notes that the book leaves untranslated interjections that Yanomami speakers use to introduce topics, and that all express in some way nuances of the speaker’s emotional response to the material under discussion. Separate single-word exclamations exist to convey anger, approval, a positive response to some information, irritation, surprise, disapproval, and sudden recollection. This strikes me as a dense concentration of meaning in very few syllables, which could potentially make conversations very efficient and intimate, and allow a deep exploration of ideas to happen quickly. I wonder, in fact, if the English translation does these interjections justice.  For example, I speculate that the interjection that is said to denote a positive response to some information, “haxiopë!,” may mean something more specific than “that’s great.”  Based on a few examples I’ve seen in the book so far, it seems as though it may mean “that clears up something that was really unclear, or seriously changes my views, and allows me to now go father in my thinking, and I am glad.”  I am fascinated by the idea that perhaps cultures like these, which are content with simply having enough of what they need on a material level, spend more of their energy delving into thought and emotion and spiritual experience.  To do that, you would want to be able to communicate with each other as well as possible, since deep thinking happens best interactively.  And so you’d develop a language that concisely transmits as much as possible of a person’s reaction to what they hear from their interlocutors.  (I further wonder if mathematicians have a method for calculating complexity or meaning density that could quantify the difference–if I am right that there is one— between how much is conveyed by a “great” vs. a “haxiopë!”)

Other fascinating features of the language relate to Yanomami names. These are not given by parents at birth; instead nicknames are given by a community of relatives once a child’s personality has emerged, often focused around a representative or memorable incident or trait, such as “Talks Loud.” (This may be a feature of multiple indigenous languages, and it would be fascinating to know if it is the norm.) Moreover, Yanomami names are not used in the presence of the person named or his or her close relations. This suggests to me that the culture is mindful of allowing a person to develop and grow, changing throughout life; the use of a name in second-person address would rudely suggest “I know who you are,” as a fixed quantity. I would love to ask a native speaker if this idea is correct.

Finally, Kopenawa, as a spiritual leader of a culture without writing, is scornful of the white people’s need to “draw their words” on “image skins” made of “dead trees,” instead of holding words heard from live people in our minds and hearts. It’s made me think more deeply about writing vs. speech. Writing allows our thoughts to be present to others when we are not; but reading–as anyone who has checked their text messages or email at the dining room table knows– also distract us from listening to those who are right here with us. In the film by and about the Kogi people of Columbia that I posted about recently, we are told that in their philosophy, “To think is to listen.”  That’s an idea I’ll be pondering for a while.