Nouns, Verbs and Movement

Mark Abley’s book Spoken Here is about languages that are becoming extinct. While reading it, I came across the idea that some languages are noun-driven and some are verb-driven. English is noun-driven. For example, we say “It rains” or “It snows”. We always add a subject or “acting entity,” regardless of whether one exists. Hopi is verb-driven. It has verbs without nouns. They would simply say “snows.” Abley raises the question, might it be easier to understand certain aspects of the natural world through a verb-driven language? He suggests that perhaps the “relativist discoveries of modern physics could be expressed more easily in Hopi than English.”

This made me think of human movement and the initial tendency many students have of seeing the Alexander Technique in static terms. For example students will often ask, “Where should I hold my shoulders? What is the right position for my head?” Or they might freeze, hold their breath, and ask, “Is this posture correct?” At the end of a lesson, when they feel long and light and loose, they might say, “Now, if I could just hold myself like this!” And I can see them start to stiffen.

The idea that we should hold ourselves in a static position is not accurate or realistic, but it is a very common view and contributes to the problems with strain and excess tension that so many people have. Abley’s book made me wonder if our noun-driven language could contribute to their prevalence.

When writing about the Mi’kmaq language, Abley quotes Harvard trained law professor Sake’j Youngblood Henderson: “the use of verbs rather than nouny subjects and objects is important; it means that there are very few fixed and rigid objects in the Mi’kmaq worldview…. To have to speak English is like having to put on a straitjacket.”

Part of the AT teacher’s job is to help their students think more dynamically. To look at “posture” for example, as a response in the moment, not something you can get or hold. Students learn a more dynamic way to balance and support themselves that replaces old habits of rigidity. For most people this is a new experience (or one they have not had since they were very small children) and a new way of thinking about themselves. The experience and the new language used to describe it reinforce each other.

Abley suggests that language affects how we perceive and experience the world. I think the same is true of how we move and think about movement. Language and habitual movement are so much a part of us we often don’t consider them. Examining these constructs can open the door to exciting and profound change.