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(Full article available in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education)

“A language is an organism. A weightless, discontinuous organism that lives in the minds and bodies of those who speak it—or from the language’s point of view, in the bodies and minds of those through whom it is able to speak.”

— Robert Bringhurst

In the first substantive chapter of the unpublished bookwork, Wilderness Storytelling, Robert Bringhurst reflected on over a decade of reading and translating nineteenth-century Haida oral poets. Bringhurst starts a dialogue with these poets on the ecology of stories and the relationships between languages, stories, the human mind, landscape, environment. He recounts his interest in reading Haida texts in the original language and provides a brief account of the many languages formerly spoken in the territories now known as Canada, Alaska, and the United States, with roughly five hundred languages in North America as a whole.

Bringhurst posits the West Coast North America as a migration corridor, Noting the parallels of language and population densities. In North America, only 170 languages survive from about three hundred, with dwindling populations of speakers. He discusses language revival and conservation, casting language as a living entity, depending on environments to adapt. An emphasis on language as an organism sustains Bringhurst’s core argument as he envisions language as a means of speaking with the world rather than about it.

A language is an organism. A weightless, discontinuous organism that lives in the minds and bodies of those who speak it—or from the language’s point of view, in the bodies and minds of those through whom it is able to speak. Languages are mortal, like other living things—but in a state of environmental health, when languages die, other languages are growing up to replace them. When you kill a language off and replace it with an import, you kill part of the truth. A language is a means of seeing and understanding the world, a means of talking with the world. Never mind talking about the world; that’s for dilettantes. A language is a means of talking with the world. When you kill a language off—even a language with only a single speaker—you make the entire planet less intelligent, less articulate, less capable—and decidedly less beautiful—than it was.

Accordingly, language must develop organically—it cannot be enforced or policed. The destruction and extirpation of the environment and species follow the genocide and extinction of Indigenous peoples, languages and traditions.

When you wipe out a community, a culture, and leave five or ten or twenty speakers of the language, you can claim that the language survives, that it isn’t extinct. But what happens is every bit as terrible as when you clear cut a forest and leave a strip of trees along the edge, to hide the clearcut from the highway. It’s true in both cases that something will eventually grow back—but what was there before is gone forever.

Human beings and human cultures are “right up near the top” of the list of threatened beings, with the total Indigenous population of North America falling more than ninety per cent from 1500 to 1900.

Envisioning language as a living organism that engenders human and nonhuman literatures, Bringhurst turns to modern times and the literacy culture it has developed as agents of extermination of the last oral cultures of the earth.

To this day there are missionary agencies, both secular and religious, going about the world attempting to spread literacy, claiming that this technology will empower and enfranchise and enrich all those to whom it is given. What these missionary agencies are doing in actual fact is exterminating the earth’s last oral cultures. Those who seek to improve human welfare by exterminating ancient oral cultures are in need of greater wisdom—just like those who seek to improve human welfare by clearcutting the earth’s last virgin forests.

Marx argued that “Ideas do not exist apart from language.” According to Bringhurst, this assertion emerges as simultaneously false—with relation to the natural world—and true—with relation to humans.

Where there are ideas, there is language. Mythtellers however are prone to remember (and writers to forget) that the languages of words are not the only kind of human language, and the languages spoken by humans are only a small subset of language as a whole. Some deeply human stories tell us this is so.

Bringhurst considers other Western philosophers such as Plato as he ponders the relations between ideas and languages, concluding that the “primary way—and maybe the only way—of doing sustained and serious philosophy is by telling stories”.

In the hands of an expert mythteller, the stories are a form of wisdom. In the hands of anyone else, they may be nothing more than narrative clichés. Here as elsewhere, everything depends on the tradition—yet everything depends on the individual as well. If you treat the stories with respect, you have to learn to hear them in their language—their tradition—but also in the voices of the real individuals who are telling them. That’s been the foundation of my own approach to Haida oral literature: to translate the works of individuals and give the poets back their names.

The Haida poet Skaay and his Qquuna Cycle—dictated to linguist John Swanton in 1900—are equal to Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, but in some ways more similar to Dante in terms of the “psychological depth of his characters”. Bringhurst acclaims Skaay as “the greatest of the classical Haida poets whose work survives, and one of the greatest mythtellers I have ever encountered in any language, in any culture” and calls for recognizing his status as “one of this continent’s major authors”.

His reading of Skaay and other Haida oral poets emerges from a deeper and more intricate critical understanding of linguistics as a branch of natural history, acknowledging no boundary between this branch and literary history.

There is no boundary, so far as I’m concerned, between linguistics and literary history. Linguistics, in fact, is a branch of natural history—the branch that focuses, let us say, on the statements made by speaking creatures, and on the stories that they tell—in the same way that conchology focuses on the shells made by shell-making creatures, and osteology on the bones made by creatures that have skeletons. This approach frightens many linguists away. Many of them don’t know what “literature” is, but they know it sounds awfully subjective and unscientific, so they’d like to think it has nothing to do with their field. And to some scholars of literature, “linguistics” sounds morbidly objective, technical and dry.

Bringhurst justifies and explains these bold claims in the final sections with both Western and Cree languages and concepts featuring in detail, along with passages of Haida poetry, stressing the organicity of languages and stories as the foundation of ecological linguistics.

Works by Robert Bringhurst

Bringhurst has published 18 poetry books since 1972, with The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972–82 (1982) nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1985 and Ursa Major (2003) short-listed for the 2004 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. His works of prose are equally prolific and varied, such as The Raven Steals the Light, with Bill Reid (1984); The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, with photographs by Ulli Steltzer (1991); and A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (1999), nominated for a Governor General’s Award. Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, originally published in 1992, is now a highly influential work with numerous revisions and remains a reference for typographers and designers.

Robert Bringhurst at The Poetry Foundation