How language embodies our relationship with the world
As an organisation devoted to narrative change, our relationship with language is inherently complex. Anyone who has been following our work for some time would notice that our language is always changing. We’re constantly revisiting, reshuffling, rethinking, reimagining, and reinventing our language and tone, and how we use it to tell stories.
As a collective, spanning several countries around the world, we each have our own ways of expressing ourselves. This diversity makes us stronger, and something we are forever grateful for. For some of us, English is not our native tongue. Some of us even think and write entire articles in our native languages before translating them into English.
In our decade of experience working alongside peasant and Indigenous communities, we have come to understand that languages are inextricably linked to cultural diversity and biodiversity. They are embodiments of cultures, of knowledge systems, of entire ways of seeing and understanding the world. Many Indigenous communities have, over generations, carefully embedded within their languages, oral, religious, artistic and festive traditions, as well as folk taxonomies and ancestral sayings, that are crucial to understanding and preserving local environments.
The words and terminologies used in many Indigenous languages are often reflective of communities’ relationship with the world, and with each other. In Māori, for instance, the word for autism is Takiwātanga, which means “in their own time and space”. In Lakota, there is no word for “love”. Instead, there is only a word, “theȟila”, which roughly translates into “I will suffer for you”. The Lakota culture places great emphasis on the concept of mitákuye oyás'iŋ, or “all my relatives,” which includes not only human beings but also the natural world, animals, and spirits. Therefore, this phrase expresses a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others and the interconnectedness of all living things. Words like that are stories in themselves because they already give you a glimpse into a way of relating with each other and with the natural environment, of showing up for your loved ones and the lengths you are willing to go to for them, and “love” as a word almost sounds shallow in comparison.
Over the years, we’ve pushed ourselves to challenge the structure and form of the languages we use. Doing our best to move away from terminology rooted in a colonial way of seeing the world. We’re always debating internally about the meaning and implications of the words we’re using — words like human rights, developed and developing world, technology, farmer, landless, and poor. We strive to find better words that are more rooted in sovereign worlds of community and care.
But, there are limitations to the extent we can challenge language. And it’s important to acknowledge and reconcile with them. As of now, English is our primary language of communication. We are forced to draw arbitrary lines based on material realities such as our own internal capacity, the language spoken by our primary reader base, and the audience we’re trying to reach.
Given these constraints, our approach is to find new ways in which we can release ourselves from the confines of how English is constructed and arranged — new ways to work with this very colonial, very aristocratic language to be more reflective of the diverse cultures of the communities that make up the majority of the world. This can be a challenging task because English is a language that heavily emphasises nouns and possessive pronouns like 'mine' and 'yours', emphasising individual ownership and property. This is quite different from many indigenous languages that prioritise animacy and relationality, reflecting a sense of collective belonging and interconnectedness.
To reimagine English, therefore, requires a significant amount of collective learning and unlearning. It requires us to recognise that words themselves embody our relationship with the world. A perception of the world that (in the case of English and other Indo-European languages) is built around colonial power structures that seek to “other” cultures based on their differences. The same structures that dub a certain line of thought as “scientific” and the other as “superstitious”, as “modern” and “backward”, as “rational” and “irrational”, as “civilised” and “savage”.
We’re always having conversations internally to deepen our engagement with language. To find newer and better ways of confronting power through storytelling. However, we’re only a small group, and we can’t get too far if our dialogues remain restricted within the organisation. This year, we will be opening up some of these conversations to our broader community, in hope that we can all radically reimagine language together.
For this newsletter, we thought we’d share with you a conversation we’ve been having internally around our usage of the terms “Minority World” and “Majority World”. If you’ve been following our work this last year, you may have noticed that we adopted it as an alternative to the more commonly used “Developed” and “Developing”, “First World” and “Third World”, “Global North” and “Global South,” or “West” and “East”.
First, some context on why we made the switch to Minority and Majority World, in the first place. The use of terms like developed and developing obscures the power imbalances that exist between nations, which are largely the result of colonialism. Describing some countries as underdeveloped implies that they are in that state because they somehow lack the knowledge, resources, or skills of so-called developed countries. That there is something inherently “backwards” about the communities in these regions. But the reality is that today’s so-called underdeveloped countries were — and continue to be — violently robbed of their right to development through colonial and neocolonial subjugation. The usage of these terms is therefore a concerted effort by rich countries to actively rewrite their historical violence and disguise their stolen wealth as a story of success and innovation. As Franz Fanon puts it, “Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples.”
The use of the terms Majority World and Minority World was first proposed by Bangladeshi photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam. As Alam explains, the expressions we traditionally use “have strong negative connotations that reinforce the stereotypes about poor communities and represent them as icons of poverty. They hide their histories of oppression and continued exploitation. The labels also hinder the appreciation of the cultural and social wealth of these communities.”
According to Alam:
Minority World refers to a small group of rich countries (including the United States, Australia, Russia, and the United Kingdom) that impose their will on the Majority of the World’s people, even though they are, in fact, the minority. Their interests do not represent that of the world’s people. Their culture is not the world’s culture.
Majority World highlights that the people belonging to impoverished countries make up the majority of the world’s population. Alam explains that the term defines this community based on what it has and what it is, rather than what it lacks and what it isn’t. He adds that its usage is actively hopeful that “in time, the majority world will reaffirm its place in a world where the earth will again belong to the people who walk on it.”
These terms gave us a great sense of relief when we first stumbled upon them. We finally had words that addressed the colonial undertones of development and centred the world’s majority while holding the minority accountable for all its exploitation and imposition.
However, since we adopted them, we’ve found ourselves questioning whether a spatial understanding of oppression (albeit necessary) is sufficient to explain the dominant system, and, more importantly, to understand how to dismantle it. Our concerns were mostly centred around questions of identity and intersectionality that often transcend geographical location.
Who is the Minority we are referring to? Does it include the diaspora of the Majority World scattered across the Minority World? Does it include the social elite (the super-rich and oppressor castes) of the Majority World that very much enable and benefit from this system of global oppression? Does it include the working class, peasant, and Indigenous communities of the Minority World who are still oppressed by the dominant system despite living in regions that receive some trickle-down benefits?
Although the role of colonialism in creating and exacerbating structural inequalities that benefit some parts of the world while impoverishing and oppressing the majority is undeniable, it would be reductive to equate oppression with geography alone. While it is clear that Minority World states and institutions under their control continue to have an outsized influence on the dominant system, not everyone in our current definition of Minority World has the power to impose their will on the rest of the world, nor are they all (strictly) beneficiaries of colonisation and capitalism. And not everyone in the Majority World suffers equally at the hands of it.
Given these considerations, we’ve been discussing how we can expand our definition of Minority World and Majority World to form a more nuanced understanding of power that includes the various intersections of location, race, class, caste, religion, gender, and other forms of marginalisation. This expanded definition acknowledges that there are people and communities who experience oppression in multiple ways, even if they are not located in traditionally recognised Majority World regions. It also emphasises that the dominant system of power and oppression is imposed by a small minority of the social elite, which may be concentrated in certain regions but are scattered across the world, and that they contribute to the marginalisation of diverse communities worldwide.
In the words of educator Paulo Freire, “Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which people transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. People are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.”
Our work to transform the world around us is bound, whether we like it or not, by language. And language is never neutral. It is deeply connected to the values and beliefs of those who created it — values that are upheld, whether knowingly or not, by those who use it. As such, language has the ability to shape our perception of the world to either maintain or challenge power imbalances.
Part of our work, then, must be to engage in the messy process of (as Freire puts it) naming the world. The goal is not to come up with a perfect word or term — it doesn’t exist. Case-in-point, many activists and movements intentionally use words like “Third World” and “Global South” precisely because they want to lean into the complicated history and implications. They use “Third World” as a way to proudly reclaim an identity that has been violently defined for them. There is tremendous power in reclaiming words and redefining them for ourselves. We use the word ‘peasant’, which has derogatory colonial roots, for this very reason. But we’ll unpack this in more detail in a separate newsletter, so stay tuned. :)
Our goal, as an organisation, is to use the search for true words as a way to tell new stories — stories of intergenerational trauma, interconnectedness, resistance, and hope.
Join us in reimagining our relationship with language by sharing your thoughts and insights on alternative framings, new words to consider, or your personal thoughts and feelings about language.
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Such an important topic and so well-articulated! Just a minor note that the term “underdeveloped” was actually coined by Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney in his 1972 book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ which attempted to raise many of the same issues you point to in this essay. Like modern use of ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’, he was trying to shift the attention and indeed the culpability for poverty and oppression back onto the oppressor. But I appreciate you taking this analysis that many steps further as well as your commitment to continually learning and unlearning. Always enjoy reading these.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. The link to my piece under "What Inspired Us..." is broken - Seed magazine is no longer online - but you can access the full text from the Internet Archive: