How to launch new ideas IV Why have words? (Presentation)

If you say that we have words to pinpoint and describe the things
around us, and to explain what we may wish to do in their respect, you
will not be far wrong. But there is more to it than that.

If we tried to describe the patterns made by the water in these two
pictures, words would fail us in English and probably Georgian too; but
it would be no problem in the American Indian language Hopi, where in
the first situation a native Hopi speaker would say haꞌrï and in the
second harïꞌrïta. If the same native Hopi Indian – there are about

16,000 of these original inhabitants of Arizona still surviving – were to
speak about wind blowing across a cornfield

he might say waꞌya, ŋaꞌya – or if the wind is really rippling through the
field wayaꞌyata, ŋaꞌyayata or even – and this is how Van Gogh saw it –
riaꞌyata. These Hopi words precisely describe exact wave-like motions.

So American Indian languages have excellent words to describe events
in nature, and to denote a small difference between them, something
which you only really see if you live close to nature for thousands of
But Western peoples have languages which are strong on words for
objects. It was guns and the desire for gold which destroyed the

American Indian peoples, but the American Indian language Shwanee
cannot say, ‘I clean a gun with a metal rod’: they can only say, ‘dry
space, interior of hole, movement’ – Pēkw, alāk, h.
It’s like – they are dreaming! But they have excellent words for their
IV Archaeology of a Language

At Dmanisi, as is well known, archaeologists were able to find skulls
dating back 1.8.million years: of hominids who had come to the area
that is now Georgia from Africa.


A million years later, also in Africa, evidence is emerging about the first
symbolic human thinking and behaviour, as this wonderful video shows.
We will touch on other aspects of this interesting story as we study the
course; for now I wanted to fast forward to our text – written in 2008 –
and see how the words in it can be traced back at least two thousand
years. Below is a colour key to enable you to see which words can be
traced to which area of the evolution of English, and one or two starred
words of especial interest we may discuss in detail at a later stage.


As I’ve said, English means learning at least four languages at once…


Good luck on the journey – and I hope that I’ve whetted your appetite!