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On the lack of abstract "concepts" in Indigenous languages


JIVARO   From Mission to the Head-Hunters by Frank and Marie Drown, New York: Harper and Row, 1961, pp. 53-54.


Ernest warned us that the Indians were accustomed to communicating with the white man in a kind of trade language, a highly simplified form of Jivaro.  This is what he had learned during his first year in Sucua; but when he went on the trail he found he could understand only a part of what the Indians were saying.  He determined to forget the trade language and master the true Jivaro.  He also set before us the same goal.


However, we did not gain facility in this language as quickly as we had done in Spanish.  That had been simple compared to the complications of learning Jivaro.  There were not even words to express the spiritual concepts we had come to teach the Indians.  Their language is rich in terms which describe their jungle surroundings, family life, adventures in the forest, wars, and witchcraft.  It would be years before we would learn all their varied and eloquent expressions associated with evil, hatred, killing, lust, witchcraft, and filth.


But finding phrases to expound the truths of the Bible would be something else.  There were no words for salvation, grace, belief, or peace.  After long and patient work Ernest had discovered only a few which approximated thoughts of joy, comfort, patience gentleness goodness, and the many other virtues named in the Bible.  When we spoke of the righteousness of God we had to employ the same word the Indians used to describe a well-cleared garden patch. We had to face the fact that since the Jivaros did not know these things they felt no need to talk about them.  But the more we studied the more we loved this strange jungle tongue.  




The Drowns' encounter with the Shuar language created a kind of linguistic culture shock.  Imagine a language with no words for  "salvation, grace, belief, or peace"!  Although the missionaries mistakenly explain this as a linguist lack of terms for the good what they have really encountered is a lack of terms for abstract concepts.  There are also no terms for "order," "regularity," "government," "law,"  geometric, individual, substance, product, reality, freedom, time, ect. ect.   This means that it is very difficult to translate legal, scientific, or technical texts (in fact any language used to control variables) into an indigenous language.                                                                                  

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