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Some things people can’t own

People talk for only one reason—to communicate. Sometimes a language does not have the word another language does because it does not have the concept. If the word contains more than one significant element not otherwise expressed in another language, then that other language may have to use a dozen words to express what a foreign word means. But most of the world’s major languages, if allowed enough words, can succeed in conveying what a word means, even if the meaning is an alien concept.

There are many universal human experiences, thoughts, ideas, that are identical in concept although the word is very different. But there are words that express meaning or ideas so distinct and/or unfamiliar, the only thing to do is just borrow that word from another language. Like the word ennui in French. English has no word quite meaning ennui, so we use ennui. Otherwise, we are stuck with a long description: “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”

The French also have a term—déjà vu, for which, in English, we have no term, so we just use déjà vu—“the feeling that you have already experienced something ostensibly happening for the first time.”

Many Lakota words are difficult to translate into English, but some are not, and when we find words that are not difficult to translate it is because human experience, human perceptions, are often very similar, across all cultures, across history. As a people we have many justifiable resentments of the dominant culture, we see the negative aspects, we have suffered from their application. It is understandable that we are not in a charitable or trusting mood when we judge Wasicu culture and behavior.

There are seven Lakota values, and for those values, we have words we translate into English words, those words being: Praying, Respect, Caring (compassion), Honesty, Generosity, Humility and Wisdom. This translation is easy because these concepts are shared human experience across all cultures and deep into history.

But one time I was discussing these seven Lakota values with two young Lakota and they insisted these values had no meaning in English. Since we were speaking English at the time, I said if these seven values have no meaning in English than where did the English words come from that we are using? They got very upset and told me I was being disrespectful to them when I was ciye, the elder, and they were misun, the younger. All the disrespect was on their part.

These words had meaning in English because the Wasicu share these values with us. But other words exist in English, like greed, dishonesty, contempt, jealousy and racism. Wasicu have words for these attitudes and behaviors because they are practiced with great regularity.

On the other hand, the Lakota have words for these negative attitudes and behaviors as well, because we are also greedy, dishonest, contemptuous, jealous and racist.

We judge the Wasicu by the worst aspects of his culture. We judge ourselves by the best aspects of our culture, and that we do not see this without having it pointed out, and do not accept it even after it is pointed out, warrants we come up with a new word to describe this negative tendency. The Wasicu does have a term, confirmation bias: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.”

That term is good but doesn’t quite address the whole. Because we have been oppressed and marginalized, we have separated ourselves from the overall human family, insisting in our own creation, independent of the other seven billion people on this planet. We have concocted a romanticized identity and so we say things like, “We are an ancient people,” when all people are equally ancient, or we say, “Our ways are sacred,” when all people equally consider their ways sacred.

But above and beyond all of that, we want to claim our language belongs to us, when the purpose of language is to communicate, and so any word spoken by any person belongs to all men. No people can own a language any more than they can own an idea, or the sky, or the wind, or the sun.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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