The Dictionary in Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia

Katharine Gorman '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

In his discussion of the Yaghan Indians' language Chatwin poses a series of rhetorical questions and essentially asks, "what should we make of these people who have a nuanced, complex language? Are these people as 'primitive' as we thought? Throughout part 64 of In Patagonia, Chatwin provides examples of Yaghan words and their English translations, which are ostensibly taken from Thomas Bridges' Yaghan Dictionary complied in the late nineteenth century. Chatwin presents the reader with a lexicon that reveals something of the Yaghan's way of life, their attention to detail, their closeness with nature, and their remarkable skill at reading the environment.

What shall we think of a people who defined 'monotony' as 'an absence of male friends?' Or for 'depression', used the word that described the vulnerable phase in a crab's seasonal cycle, when it has sloughed off its old shell and waits for another to grow? Or who derived 'lazy' from the Jackass Penguin? Or 'adulterous' from the hobby, a small hawk that flits here and there, hovering motionless over its next victim?

Here are just a few of their synonyms:

Sleet — Fish scales

A shoal of sprats — Slimy mucus

A tangle of trees that have fallen blocking the path forward — A hiccough

Fuel — Something burned-Cancer

Mussels out of season — Shrivelled skin-Old age

Some of their linkings were beyond me:

The fur seal — The relatives of a murdered man

Others seemed obscure then came clear:

A thaw (of snow) — A scar-Teaching...

The Yaghans had a dramatic verb to capture every twitch of the muscles, every possible action of nature or man. [part 64; pp. 136-137]

Later in the chapter, Chatwin relates to the reader his knowledge of the Yaghans' lifestyle and suggests the culture and its people are superior to the Western existence he and his readers know.

The Yaghans were born wanderers though they rarely wandered far. The ethnographer Father Martin Gusinde wrote: 'They resemble fidgety bords of passage, who feel happy and inwardly calm only when they are on the move'; and their language reveals a mariner's obsession with time and space. For, although they did not count to five, they defined the cardinal points with minute distinctions and read seasonal changes as an accurate chronometer....A tribe's territory, however uncomfortable, was always a paradise that would not be improved on. By contrast the outside world was Hell and its inhabitants no better than beasts. [pp. 137-138]

Chatwin conveys the message that the Yaghan Indians must be understood in their own right and not held to Western ideals and standards. While he proposes that if one looks at the Yaghan Indians with a culturally relativistic eye, the Yaghan's superiority will become clear, he also insinuates that the way in which this tribe views outsiders is quite similar to the way Westerners themselves view peoples outside Europe.


What is the purpose of asking a series of rhetorical questions? How does Chatwin answer them?

Chatwin provides the reader with definitions for Yaghan words and at times takes a small paragraph to explain the "thought process" behind such definitions. In what ways is this similar or different to the ways in which Wolfe and Carlyle define terms for their readers? Is Chatwin acting as an anthropologist or sage?

Why does Chatwin include so many excerpts from the Yaghan Dictionary? He also takes a quotation from ethnographer Father Martin Gusinde, why might he have done this? What does this do for his own argument?

Like Montaigne's "Of Cannibals" (text) Chatwin has taken a culture which is supposedly lesser than the one he and his readers are of, and shows how the "other" is actually better than they. How does Chatwin do this without outright stating this opinion? In what way is Chatwin's technique similar or different from Montaigne's? Where else in the book does Chatwin expose the superiority of a 'primitive' culture?


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 20 April 2005