Concepts of "Nature" in Two Nonwestern Languages

Date and Time: 
Thursday, 16 May, 2013 - 19:50 to 20:10
ANDERSON, E. N. University of California, Riverside

Concepts of “nature” differ radically from culture to culture. Few, if any, nonwestern languages have the strong opposition between “nature” and “humans” that English has, and even English does have the phrase “human nature.” The nearest Chinese equivalent to “nature” is xing and a family of words derived from it, but this word really means inborn or innate qualities as opposed to acquired ones, so that “human nature” does not need any special marking—it is, in fact, the focal exemplar of xing. A quite different concept, ye “wild,” covers the wilderness as a dangerous place. Yucatec Maya has no concept of “nature” as separate from people, since the whole Maya environment was more or less managed by people.  The Spanish words natura and naturaleza are borrowed.  As in Chinese, there are words for inborn nature, such as sihnal, which literally means “what is inborn” (siih, to be born),and ka’ah, something basic and proper to a thing.  These concepts and the philosophy behind them contrast with the English language words and concepts, and shape folk taxonomies as well as behavior toward the nonhuman world.