The Fifth World

Language

Language refers to a method of communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

Descent

Four centuries can change a language drastically even under less stressful conditions. Four centuries separated the Elizabethan English of William Shakespeare and the twentieth century, when many readers routinely struggled to understand his plays. With the traumatic events surrounding the collapse of civilization and the ensuing Rusting Ages, language in the Fifth World has changed even more drastically.

Just as history has diverged, such that global history has given way to many thousands of community histories, so too have languages diverged into many different regional varieties. Civilization created a bottleneck for the survival of languages as much as it did for living species, so that many of the languages of the Fifth World descend from Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, or Punjabi. These languages had the most speakers in the final years of civilization, and as climate refugees moved polewards during the Rusting Ages they brought their languages with them.

The descendants of these languages can vary greatly, though, as they have continued developing for four centuries without mutual contact. So, for example, languages like Anglish, Inglitch, Ongluse, and Oongloost all descend from English — and in each case, their speakers consider themselves speakers of English, and others as speakers of some divergent language.

Verbing

The shift away from literacy and towards orality following the collapse of civilization has affected many languages in the Fifth World. As focusing on relationships and processes helps train a person’s perception to become a better tracker, languages with more verbs than nouns tended to produce better trackers, and in turn had greater success surviving the turbulent years of the Rusting Ages.

For example, English uses the word “elephant” as a noun, meaning a member of a particular species of pachyderm. A Fifth World language descended from English uses “elfon” as a verb, meaning a particular pattern of movement and behavior typical of such a creature. When a man charges at you, you might say, “e elfond me.” When a woman shows natural leadership, you might say, “chi elfonds.” When a community gathers to mourn a dead relative, you might say, “dey elfond.” When a tracker sees tracks that look like those left by an elephant, she might say “dey elfond” rather than “an elephant made these.” This statement hews more closely to what the tracker has actually observed — a pattern of behavior — rather than mapping that to a specific classification that may or may not prove true. This helps the tracker avoid leaping to an incorrect conclusion and then missing important clues.

In most Fifth World languages, verbs now outnumber nouns, sometimes by a wide margin. One might find it easy to speak using only verbs, with all of the nouns implied. For example, one could contract the sentence, “The snake slithers” to “Slithering,” since the verb ‘’slithering’’ implies a snake.

Vowels

The leaves and tree trunks of the Fifth World’s thick forests reflect sound, and pockets of warm air can disrupt sound waves. Factors like these have led languages that develop in tropical rainforests to rely more heavily on vowels than consonants, since those sounds can travel more easily through the forest. With tropical rainforest stretching from pole to pole in the Fifth World, every language has seen a shift towards using more vowels. This extends even beyond human language, as animal calls likewise rely on more vowel-like sounds in tropical rainforests for the same reasons.

Bioregional influences

While all languages in the Fifth World have trended towards using more verbs and vowels, other changes from their older parent languages have come from bioregional influences. With the importance that hunting and tracking has in their daily lives, everyone in the Fifth World has a certain familiarity with animal calls, and this in turn has influenced language. Human language begins to hew more closely to the sounds of other-than-human animals that dwell in the same land.

Sometimes people will hunt the loon, but me, I don’t like to kill it. I like to listen to it all I can and pick up the words it knows.

Unknown Koyukon hunter

Among other-than-human animals

If we define language as the way that humans communicate specifically then, tautologically, only humans can use language. People in the Fifth World would generally consider this a silly assertion, though. They know the songs and calls of animals, which carry as much meaning as human speech. It differs from their own language, certainly, but then so does the language of other communities. If territory, mating, and alarm calls seem less expressive than the full potential of human language, a person in the Fifth World would note that human beings mostly use their language to speak about food and sex, too. They feel comfortable not only describing the often complex ways that other-than-human animals communicate as language, but also speaking of their own languages as something tied to them, and not uniquely human.

For the Amahuaca, the Koyukon, the Apache, and the diverse Aboriginal peoples of Australia – as for numerous other indigenous peoples – the coherence of human language is inseparable from the coherence of the surrounding ecology, from the expressive vitality of the more-than-human terrain. It is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is but a part of that vaster discourse.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World