(About a 2 minute read)
English is not the best language in the world for discussing what is truth.
Back in the old days, folks thought of truth as a beautiful woman. Let’s suppose for a moment they were right. Let’s suppose truth is a woman. If truth is a woman, then English is an awkward, clumsy 14 year old boy trying to seduce a sophisticated and confident 36 year old woman. There are better languages than English for discussing the nature of truth.
The Hopi are a nation of native Americans living in the Southwestern United States. If I can now recall what I was taught about the Hopi language in my linguistic anthropology course 40 years ago, the language is significantly more sophisticated than English when it comes to dealing with the concept of truth.
In Hopi, you cannot get away with only saying something is true. The language won’t allow it. Hopi forces you to state how you know something is true.
The Hopi language recognizes three different ways of knowing something is (or probably is) true. It forces you to pick one of those ways. There is, for instance, no equivalent of the English statement, “I know you are home tonight”. But here — expressed in English — are what you could say in Hopi:
I see (or directly experience) you are home tonight.
I hear (or have learned from another person) you are home tonight.
I reason (on the basis of what I have myself seen, or what I have heard from another person, or on the basis of both) that you are home tonight.
Just imagine how much fun we would have if our politicians, pundits, and preachers were forced to speak to us in Hopi!
Here’s the English: My friends, it is a simple fact that my opponent in this race for the Governorship is a know pedophile!”
Here’s Hopi #1: “My friends, I have personally seen that my opponent is a pedophile! Oh, wait! It’s not as it sounds! I really wasn’t there myself. Not really. “
Here’s Hopi #2: “My friends, you should be alarmed! I have it on good second-hand hearsay that my….Oh wait! It’s more than hearsay.. Well, I mean stronger than hearsay. That is, it’s admittedly hearsay, but it’s also stronger than hearsay. Um…”
Here’s Hopi #3: “My friends, I’ve added it all up to the best of my thinking ability and…Why are you all laughing? Friends! Why is everyone laughing at me?”
English, for all it’s many strengths, does not even come close to encouraging the sort of just and fair skepticism that Hopi does. Rather in comparison, English seems to be a language that encourages people to quickly swallow things as true, rather than to think about how and whether they are true.