On a remote mountainside in Mesoamerica, two Maya meet, and, as their people have for many centuries, they exchange the following words: in lak’ech—a la k’in. This ancient Maya greeting can be rendered into English as “I’m another you,” to which a respondent would utter, “You’re another me.” Whereas salutations such as “hello” typically function as a formulaic means of attracting attention, in lak’ech—a la k’in affirms an irrefutable bond between interlocutors that is at once psychological and spiritual. The everyday repetition of the Maya greeting might be one way of instilling a greater sense of interdependence because the way we address each other has a powerful effect on all that follows. It has the potential, moreover, to counter the dualistic assumptions that have contributed to the advent of the current geologic age known as the Anthropocene.
Greetings are an essential component of initial encounters that include nonverbal signals designed to confirm recognition. As with hola in Spanish, simply acknowledging another’s presence is the primary function of “hello” or “hi” in English. The French bonjour and the Chinese nihao go a step further, conveying good wishes to the addressee. In Russian, zdravstvuyte exhorts its interlocutors to be healthy. The rather poetic as-sala¯m-ale¯-kum—wa ale¯-kum as-sala¯m (peace be upon you—and also upon you) helps establish an auspicious platform upon which Arabic speakers can converse. Greetings also serve to identify and classify individuals into meaningful categories, often depending on the sociocultural context. Accordingly, they may affirm asymmetric relations while highlighting the relative status of participants. What most greetings appear to have in common is that they reinforce a self–other dichotomy that persists within a particular speech community. To the degree that these sentiments amplify seemingly ingrained differences, they, unlike in lak’ech—a la k’in, help instill a sense of separation that is a defining feature of anthropocentrism.
To establish in lak’ech—a la k’in as a greeting in the current global lingua franca, English speakers must be convinced that this neologism is not a replacement for the quotidian “hello” but its complement. The two have distinct yet overlapping functions. The latter is a salutation designed to attract someone’s attention or acknowledge his or her presence, whereas the ancient Maya greeting goes a step further to establish a shared field of meaningful interaction. Yet the transliteration of in lak’ech—a la k’in into English might make for a rather harsh string of sounds. The glottalized consonants that distinguish meaning in Maya are, according to the linguist John Montgomery, difficult for nonnative speakers to reproduce. (The glottal stop is indicated by an apostrophe after the consonant.) Therefore, rather than follow “hello” or “hi” with “How are you?”—a phatic query that often engenders fab-rication—the suggestion here is to utter the Maya greeting’s translation: “I’m another you.” This elicits the reply “You’re another me.” In effect, “I’m another you” would not replace hello but reinstate the latter’s linguistic boundaries as a mere means of attracting attention, thereby opening discursive space for adoption of the former.
The sense of interdependence at the core of “I’m another you” stands in stark contrast to anthropocentrism. Although it has come to the fore over the past two centuries as an epistemological corollary to the modern industrial era, philosopher Max Oelschlaeger traces the roots of anthropocentrism to the advent of the Neolithic Age (circa 10,000 BCE), when the idea that humans are somehow distinct from the rest of creation began to take hold. The sedentary lifestyle precipitated by the agricultural revolution might have facilitated a closer connection to place, yet it led to a gradual sense of estrangement from the nonhuman world. Domestication of plants and animals for food is the quintessential example of humans’ attempt to manage and control nature by manipulating other life-forms. Manipulation is best achieved when the object under control is effectively delinked not only from its environment but also from its exploiter. This is the crux of the scientific method, which is based on fundamental divides between mind and matter, subject and object. Sedentariness also hastened population growth, thereby compounding the need to appropriate more resources to support a single species. An exponential increase in numbers has impelled humans to occupy what were previously inhospitable regions, which has contributed to the myriad ecological ills we are currently witnessing, such as habitat destruction and species extinction.
The looming water crisis is arguably the most significant consequence of an overreliance on an anthropocentric worldview. Often treated as a waste repository (consider words such as drain, effluent, sewer, and cesspool), large amounts of water have become unfit for human consumption. The overpumping of wells and aquifers causes arable land to lie fallow. This will eventually exacerbate food shortages while increasing the volatility of global grain and commodities markets, leaving the most vulnerable at risk of hunger. In less than a decade, a majority of the global population is expected to be living under such conditions. The usual response, couched in the detached rhetoric of better management, mitigation efforts, and policy changes, proceeds from the assumption that water is a renewable resource that can be effectively monitored and distributed. At the height of this folly is the bottled water industry’s attempt to position itself as a buffer against inadequate public services or diminishing supplies. Water, however, is not something that can be readily controlled; as the Maya evidently understood, it constitutes a cycle of which humans are only one part.
Ecocentrism offers an epistemological challenge to anthropocentrism by ascribing value to complex systems as well as the vital relations that bind them together. Rather than seeking to manipulate and control, the overriding goal is to empathize and connect with the nonhuman world in a way that recognizes its innate value. Indeed, all entities (organisms, species, and systems) are valued not because of some intrinsic quality each may possess but because they are integral to the existence of others with which they interrelate. Once relationships are held to be primary, the perspective of each organism, species, or system is thus afforded equal standing. What ecocentrism ultimately entails, therefore, is a radical decentering, which paradoxically occurs when it is acknowledged that there are myriad centers, only one of which is occupied by human beings. Each center or node is connected to all others in a vast web of interrelations. Ecocentrism, properly construed, subsumes humanity within a larger whole.
In lak’ech—a la k’in provides an ideal entryway into thinking from such a perspective. It involves a reciprocal exchange between equals that elicits the knowledge that giving and receiving are inseparable, that what is perceived as difference is not incompatible with oneness, which elides all distinctions at a deeper level of consciousness. The Maya greeting thus has the power to transcend tribal, linguistic, or religious affiliations. Its use affirms existential solidarity and coexistence—an enduring perspective that calls into question cultural conventions that reinforce division and separation. In lak’ech reminds participants that they share a spiritual affiliation that supersedes the spatial and temporal constraints of personal identities. The potential psychological implications for the individual are profound: in lak’ech—a la k’in suggests that everyone is part of something greater. When cooperation is understood as a form of self-preservation, for instance, empathy is automatic—not just to human beings but to all species in the web of life.
Aside from the radical implications of adopting in lak’ech—a la k’in, the Maya present us with a moral lesson on the hazards of foregoing a lifestyle deeply rooted in a holistic worldview. Maya civilization flourished for millennia in a geographically diverse and climatically volatile region because of a fundamental belief in the vital essence of all sentient beings, including stones and streams, existing in dynamic cycles of interdependence. This integrated outlook informed their agroecological subsistence practices, such as intercropping and fallowing. Archeological findings provide evidence of the way they maintained a sufficient supply of clean water, despite a prolonged dry season and frequent droughts, by creating reservoirs that mimic the plant–insect balance responsible for purifying wetlands. While living in relative harmony with their nonhuman neighbors, the Maya also utilized terracing, forest gardens, and raised fields as a means of satisfying their everyday needs. A symbiotic lifestyle wedded to natural cycles and processes allowed their culture to flourish until the pursuit of material wealth and fame drove an aristocratic elite into a debilitating power struggle. Deforestation and soil erosion were the most significant consequences of internecine strife that, coupled with an extended period of severe drought, led to the collapse of their remarkable civilization. The central message here is that the sense of reciprocity, coevolution, coexistence, and empathy engendered by the traditional Maya greeting must be extended to all beings if a sustainable future is to be realized.
How might this ancient Maya greeting be adopted into English? The Maya themselves are arguably best positioned to act as ecoambassadors to promote the virtues of in lak’ech—a la k’in, especially the thousands of native speakers currently residing in the United States. They are part of a blossoming pan-Maya movement that seeks to protect their cultural and linguistic heritage. Awareness of the rise and fall of Maya civilization, as succinctly delineated by historian Clive Ponting, for example, can be accompanied by the introduction of their traditional greeting. In an electronically interconnected, social media–savvy era where neologisms are coined and communicated at an unprecedented speed, this would not be without precedent. The challenge is how to make a few simple words prominent against a ubiquitous background of incessant data and information. One way would be to persuade influential groups or organizations, such as the United Nations or its affiliates, to use the Maya greeting either as a motto or in promotional materials. Another approach could be to encourage activist communities to adopt in lak’ech, or “I’m another you,” as a common greeting in their communications. This seems particularly relevant to the thousands of groups worldwide who are currently working to facilitate the transition to an ecocentric age.
The undeniable advantage of this loanword is that greetings are a universal feature of human interaction; they are enunciated countless times every day. Although they are not commonly used to convey information, nor are they closely linked to identity, in lak’ech (I’m another you) enables both. It arouses recognition and confirms connection while instilling an essential truth: that earthly existence is an interconnected web of reciprocal relationships. Its frequent repetition can thus function as a collective mantra for a species on the cusp of an existential transformation. Its utterance could help to counteract the debilitating effects of anthropocentrism. Each iteration of this rhythmic phrase would represent a brief respite from the stress of living in an increasingly alienated age. Indeed, whether it ultimately acts as a spiritual supplement or communicative complement, it is time to introduce in lak’ech—a la k’in as an enduring ritual that honors its speakers as well as the irrefutable bonds between them.
Another Path: Blockadia
1. The six official languages of the United Nations, used as a first or second language by nearly half the world’s people, are English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic.
2. Alessandro Duranti, “Universal and Culture-Specific Properties of Greetings,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 7, no. 1 (1997): 63–97.
3. See Dele Femi Akindele, “Lumela/Lumela: A Socio-pragmatic Analysis of Sesotho Greetings,” Nordic Journal of African Studies 16, no. 1 (2007): 1–17; Abdulai Salifu Asuro and Ibrahim James Gurindow M-minibo, “Convergence and Divergence Strategies in Greetings and Leave Taking: A View from the Dagba Kingdom in Ghana,” International Journal of Linguistics 6, no. 4 (2014): 224–37; and Peter G. Emery, “Greeting, Congratulating and Commiserating in Omani Arabic,” Language, Culture, and Curriculum 13, no. 2 (2000): 196–216.
4. Anthropocentrism entails not only a detachment from other life-forms but also, and more importantly, a privileging of human concerns. In the venerable chain of being, humans are at the planetary apex. From such an exalted perch, they presume the utilitarian right to preside over earthly life. The self–other divide that is evident in typical greetings is thus extended to the treatment of other species with nature as the ultimate other.
5. See John Montgomery, Maya–English: English–Maya (Yucatec) Dictionary and Phrasebook (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2004).
6. See Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991).
7. UN-Water, “A Post-2015 Global Goal for Water,” 2014, http://www.zaragoza.es/contenidos/medioambiente/onu/1090-eng_A_Post-2015_Global_Goal_for_Water.pdf.
8. This is neither entirely achievable nor desirable from an ecocentric perspective, for it can only be attained if humans and nature are in fact separate entities to begin with; conversely, if the human and natural worlds are not distinct, then the positing of intrinsic value to nature occasions contradiction.
9. The parallelism in the construction of in lak’ech—a la k’in is a prominent feature of Maya conversation. Brown shows how this dialogic repetition of mostly the same content with a few minor syntactic alterations (concerning, for example, modifiers or connectives) constitutes a collaborative style of oral interaction that children learn to emulate. See Penelope Brown, “Conversational Structure and Language Acquisition: The Role of Repetition in Tzeltal,” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 8, no. 2 (2000): 197–221.
10. As with other species, intimate greetings have the power to forge essential bonds, foster social cohesion, and maintain relationships based on tolerance and cooperation. See, for example, Jennifer E. Smith, Katherine S. Powning, Stephanie E. Dawes, et al., “Greetings Promote Cooperation and Reinforce Social Bonds among Spotted Hyaenas,” Animal Behaviour 81, no. 2 (2011): 401–15; and Jessica C. Witham and Dario Maestripieri, “Primate Rituals: The Function of Greetings between Male Guinea Baboons,” Ethology 109, no. 10 (2003): 847–59.
11. See Michael D. Coe and Stephan Houston, The Maya, 9th ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015).
12. See Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands (London: Routledge, 2015).
13. Lisa J. Lucero, Joel D. Gunn, and Vernon L. Scarborough, “Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management,” Water 3, no. 2 (2011): 479–94.
14. See Walter R. T. Witschey, “Subsistence,” in Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya, ed. Walter R. T. Witschey (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 321–23. For a detailed study of contemporary Maya agricultural practices, see Narciso Barrera-Bassols and Victor Manuel Toledo, “Ethnoecology of the Yucatec Maya: Symbolism, Knowledge and Management of Natural Resources,” Journal of Latin American Geography 4, no. 1 (2005): 9–41.
15. See Billie L. Turner and Jeremy A. Sabloff, “Classic Period Collapse of the Central Maya Lowlands: Insights about Human–Environment Relationships for Sustainability,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 35 (2012): 13908–14.
16. See Nicholas P. Dunning, Timothy P. Beach, and Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, “Kax and Kol: Collapse and Resilience in Lowland Maya Civilization,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 10 (2012): 3652–57.
17. Maya history might have turned out quite differently if not for the crater that was produced by the six-mile-wide meteor that struck the Yucatán Peninsula sixty-six million years ago. The meteor’s impact—referred to as an extinction event—created numerous sinkholes that became a major source of drinking water for the first human settlements in what is known as the Maya lowlands.
18. See Coe and Houston, Maya.
19. See Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (New York: Penguin, 2007).
20. See Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
21. The mantric qualities of “I’m another you”—“you’re another me” include the inverse ordering of soft sounds, and two sets of syllables (1-3-1) in a reciprocal relationship that constitute a 1-3-1–1-3-1 prosodic pattern. Moreover, the initial “I’m” is analogous to “Om,” which is considered by Hindus and Buddhists to be the elemental sound representing universal consciousness.