Without Words: Learning from Absences in the Wendat Language

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By John Steckley

The Wendat (Huron), when first encountered by the French in the early 17th century, were living south of Georgian Bay in central Ontario. They spoke an Iroquoian language (one related to those of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois), and grew corn, beans and squash for most of their food. The missionaries that worked with them were the Jesuits, who during the 17th and 18th centuries developed some of the most extensive dictionaries and grammars then recorded.

Through these texts, I have studied the Wendat language for about 40 years, and have written or edited six books on the subject. I often say that the language is my best teacher. It never stops instructing me about how the Wendat ancestors thought. It continues to suggest to me how the language-based teachings of the ancestors could prove useful for mainstream North American society in the early 21st century. One way it can teach is through concepts the ancestors did not express with their language, concepts not necessary in their lives. At the very least the language can be seen as presenting an alternative viewpoint that challenges our mainstream Western sense of the universal.

The Wendat language has no way of saying best. There is no way to express superlatives; no tallest, smartest, dumbest or fastest. Likewise, there is no way of saying worst. Something can be ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ even ‘very good’ and ‘very bad,’ but that is as far as you get in the good and bad scale. I believe that there are non-linguistic cultural reasons for this ‘absence’ of comparatives and superlatives.

Think of how often people talk about who is the best this, or what is the best that. Perhaps the ‘best’ is only a cultural artifact that does not always exist in the collective cultural consciousness of different societies. Who was or is the best writer in the English language? No one was or is. What is the best beer? None (with the possible exception of free beer, but that has little to do with the physical properties of the beer, just its availability). It seems to me that these superlatives guarantee that someone or something very good loses.

Connected with the lack of terms for superlatives is the fact that there is no word for ‘favourite’ in the Wendat language. I learned that when I was asked to translate a sentence for a movie Whispers Like Thunder (that never came to be, ruining my chances of taking Hollywood by storm). They wanted me to translate the sentence: “You are my favourite daughter.” After some thought, I told the script writers that there was no way of saying that in Wendat. I think the phrase that I initially used was, ‘That’s thinking like a white man’. However, I did offer to them as an alternative the sentence “You are a very good daughter ( literally, ‘I have you as child. You are very good.”) They settled for that, but then, they had no choice. Upon later reflection it seemed meaningful for me to ask myself why we ask children what their favourite subject is in school, or other favourites (e.g., foods, television programs and the like). That seems to be a cultural demand to set up a ranking that is often as unreal as ‘best.’ Why not ask ‘What do you like’? You can say that in Wendat, and it is an easier question to answer.

There is also no contrast in the Wendat language between innocence and guilt, as no such words exist. These are often complex psychological, religious and social causal notions that our legal system has to grapple with. Who among us is truly innocent? Not me. Not even small children, who might take something from, or hit, a younger sister or brother. And where does guilt begin and end? I cannot truly say. It seems to me to be a continuum, that the courtroom has to make discontinuous.

And there are no terms for government. Yes, the traditional Wendat had leadership structures, good leaders and bad ones, males and females in positions of authority. But when they spoke of decisions made by the people, the name of the leader was the one mentioned as making that decision, no hiding behind bureaucracy (for which they also had no term). And the decision that he or she made was the product of speaking and listening to the people. Consensus was important (and there is an expression for that; ‘we are of one mind.’) The term for their leader with the most authority was developed from a verb root meaning ‘to copy or imitate.’ Apparently, their most respected leaders were those who they could see as role models.

And leaders requested people to do things, they could not order them, for no such verb exists. The Ten Commandments in a way became the Ten Requests (like in a phone-in radio show). Nor is there a verb that means ‘to obey’, although you can be ‘with someone’s word.’ The word for God was ‘hawendio’ meaning ‘he is great or large in word.’ The -io- there is the same verb root that is in the Wendat word Ontario (‘it is a large lake’).

Not too surprisingly, we find no word for law in the Wendat language. In one late 17th century dictionary the word given is the noun meaning ‘word, voice’, and ‘God’s law’ (a big deal for Jesuit missionaries) was expressed as‘Hawendio hakwendaen, ‘He is great in voice, he puts or places his word.’

And then there’s time. In our culture we think of time as an object that can be lost or gained. We can be ahead of it or behind it if we pluralize it. We can have a lot of it, or only a little. It can be good or bad. It can be hard, but never soft. There is no word for time in the Wendat language. This is independent of there not being any terms for second, minute, hour and week. In one of my seventeenth century French-Wendat dictionaries the question ‘Quelle heure est-il?’ is phrased Annen iyar. The verb root means ‘sun to rise’. The question can be translated as “Where is the sun in its rising?” Time then would seem to be a place.

I should point out that all of what I have been saying is not to imply that the Wendat language was not dynamic, or that the people could not expand their vocabulary to speak of objects and concepts that the French introduced to them. For example, they did not have a term for ‘metal’, even though they did have access to copper for making earrings prior to contact. They applied the noun ‘owhista’, traditionally referring to fish scales and the hard skin of the kernels of the flint corn that they grew. They could not safely and did not eat corn on the cob. So iron, the primary metal that the French introduced to the Wendat was called owhista. Gold and silver, new metals for the Wendat, were called `it is valuable owhista` and `it is white owhista` respectively.

In language, absence can be a teacher.

John Steckley taught at Humber College for 30 years.  He has published 19 books, including six concerning the Wendat language.  He is currently the tribal linguist for the Wyandotte of Oklahoma.

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