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ACD Conversation Lab 10: Language and Place

By Nataly Raab

Language is an inherent and integral part of who we are and yet its use in relational terms to a sense of place and nature is often overlooked. Our final Conversation Lab for 2021 was inspired by the presence of Indigenous Peoples during COP26, and how they have a particular way of relating to our earth, something the majority of us have lost or forgotten.

As a team, we wanted to learn more from indigenous thinking and being and how this could support our professional practice, but we wanted to give more time and space to this. We decided that the use of Language is a window into how we relate to a sense of place, and how this can be so different across cultures.

We seek learning from indigenous communities about how they relate to space and place, the language they use, and how this opens the doors to reconnecting to ourselves and our place in this world, before jumping to solutions.

We were joined by Philippa Bayley of the Living Language Land Project, featuring 26 words from “endangered and minority languages that reveal different ways of relating to land and nature”. Philippa shared two words from communities separated by continents and oceans. The first word she shared was “MALOKA” from the Murui-Muina community in the Colombian Amazon, which describes their spiritual and ancestral longhouse. The Maloka is very much a part of the community, described by elder Emperatriz Lopez as “a woman who is crouching on her haunches”, she is the source of protection for the forest and she is where the men and women of the community connect with trees and animals in their territory in order to protect them.

The second word was “NAPURO” - shared by Aldrin Lee from Cuyo Island in the Philippines who says:

“Cuyonon contains rich knowledge systems about the Cuyo physical environment that are far more intricate and pragmatic than the Western knowledge we learn in school. Our language also encodes how to engage with these ecosystems, built upon the kind of relationship that our ancestors have forged with nature over time.”

Napuro means “becoming an island”; it is described as “an island within an island” - a family of old mature trees and highly biodiverse species that bear fruit and nuts, often a banyan (nunok) tree is also present. It is different from the rest of the forest, and it is more than a group of trees. Napuro is a spirit, a threshold to another world, a place to approach with respect and reverence.

Both Maloka and Napuro represent a deep connection with a sense of community with nature. We asked the room about how these words might translate into something similar in our society and our work. When we look at the language that we use in our projects, how do certain words conjure a feeling for that place? How can we break down barriers of understanding and separation? What if the language we choose to use in our work became more like these two words - as full, sensory experiences?

The brief hour together was inspiring and provoked more questions than answers… There is value in asking the right questions, and through this we are beginning to develop a deeper and more tightly-woven connection to place, objects, interventions, and experiences.


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