An Indigenous Language Meets Einstein

On  April 1, 2019, after months of upgrades to its equipment, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they spotted a gravity wave just after turning things back on. In addition to gravity waves, on Wednesday, April 10, scientists revealed the first-ever image of a black hole.  Back in 2016, LIGO and others reported, for the first time in history, that their scientists had detected evidence of gravitational waves colliding confirming some hypotheses derived from Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. They announced their initial discovery in twenty languages.  This time, for all those press releases, their languages skill were improved.

Millions of people can speak 19 of the languages of the initial announcement. Only thousands can speak the 20th language: that of the Siksika Nation. In English, the Siksika are called the Blackfoot. Historically the Siksika straddled the current US-Canadian border. They lived in areas now called Montana, North Dakota, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

The other 19 languages already had words for “black hole” and “gravitational waves.” Corey Gray, of the Siksika Nation (Northern Blackfoot) worked as the lead operator for LIGO. He worked with his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, to translate this news. They had to create words in Siksika to describe the underlying science.

For people wanting to know about the science behind this announcement, Gray provided a simple explanation of gravitational waves in a TED-type Talk. He discussed their collision, and its connection to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Scientists have plotted that first known collision of gravitational waves on a graph. Gray has a tattoo of that graph on his forearm.


LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration/Georgia Tech/S. Ghonge & K. Jani [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Charts of eleven collisions of gravitational waves. The one in the upper left corner GW1500914 is the plot of the first detection.


How this translation came about

According to NPR, Corey Gray thought “Whoa, wouldn’t it be just really cool if we could get this translated into an indigenous language?” LIGO agreed. As he knew only a few words, Gray asked his mother for help.

Yellowfly translated gravitational waves as “Abuduuxbiisii o?bigimskAAsts,” or in English “they stick together waves.” Yellowfly had to do two things. First, she had to deepen her understanding of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Second, she had to creatively interpret complex scientific concepts and to link those concepts to words in the Siksika language.

The significance of this translation

As only a few thousand people speak Siksika, some may question the importance of this translation. It allows Siksika speakers to discuss modern science in their own language.  It makes it easier for Siksika speaking youth to understand complex modern science.

Pagans sometimes take a concept or words, like “Awen” or “Arete” from a long-dead culture. Those concepts then become absorbed in contemporary spiritual practice. This has certain similarities to bringing Einstein theories into the Siksika language.

The Wild Hunt recently spoke with Robert N. Kvašňák, Ed.D. He specializes in the study of language acquisition.


Dr. Edmar Bernardes

Dr. Robert Kvašňák: Credit Dr. Edmar Bernardes


“Language is the tool used by humans to communicate their existence to themselves and other humans,” Kvašňák said. “Humans use the tool of language for defense and offense. They also use that tool to create abstract ideas, and to suggest desires and futures.”

Kvašňák said if a “language is not useful in making money,” the survival of that language is threatened. Languages that facilitate getting well-paying jobs tend to become dominant.

Language loss and renewal

Corey Gray’s own family illustrates the loss and revival of a language. His grandparents spoke Siksika daily, but Gray knows only a few words. Sharon Yellowfly, Gray’s mother, was sent to an “English only” boarding school for Native youth. When she entered, her primary language was Siksika. That school punished her if she spoke Siksika. When she left that school, her primary language was English.

While she lost much of the language, as an adult, she began to relearn it. At 23, Yellowfly began to develop a Siksika dictionary with her parents as her major resource. She stopped when they died. After the gravitational wave project, Yellowfly restarted that project. Since that initial detection, LIGO has detected ten other collisions of gravitational waves.  Yellowfly has continued to translate further LIGO press releases into Siksika.

Yellowfly grew up in southern Alberta, Canada. In contrast, her son, Corey Gray grew up in urban southern California. He only began to connect with Native culture in college. As an adult, Gray has become active in groups promoting Native American interest in the sciences. Gray sees these translations as part of that process.

How do languages absorb new concepts from other cultures?

According to Kvašňák, “There are several ways in which languages increase vocabulary.” One person may consciously introduce a word, as Yellowfly did. Sometimes a new word will arise as spontaneously as slang does.

Different languages favor certain sounds and disfavor others. For example, English speakers have difficulty pronouncing the German “ch” sound. When televisions first came into use, Hawaiian speakers had to develop a word for this product. They adopted the English word “TV.” The phonetic constraints of Hawaiian pronunciation, however, changed the word from “TV” to “kiwi.”

Sometimes a language uses words from its own supply of words to describe a new concept. In German, the word for television is “Fernsehr.” That word combines the German words for remote and to see. The English word “television” comes from two high status ancient languages, Greek and Latin.

In 2017, Gray’s family sponsored the “Gravitational Waves Grass Dance Special,” in which traditional dancers competed. According to NPR, Gray considered this as reaching out to young people. “That’s the thing I’m really excited about,” he said, “just to be able to go and see indigenous youth and youth from my tribe, and just tell them that there is a connection with our language to Einstein now.”