Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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The death of a language

Linguists usually estimate that 50% of all languages on the planet will be gone within the next hundred years, although far more depressing predictions exist; linguists like Dr. Devi claims that only 600 languages will be left come the end of the century and in an ever-growing, globalised world, he might not be too far away from the truth. Of India’s 850 languages, one dies every four months and of Australia’s remaining 150 indigenous languages, only 10% are passed on to future generations.

In losing an indigenous language, we use the knowledge invested in the land where it emerged; we may be able to talk about these things in other languages – this is not the point – but the accuracy and attention invested to detail which is lost when a language dies cannot be recreated in a different language. However, while losing a language may seem permanent, it is not. A language can always be revitalised.

Saying that e.g. the Saami have 300 words for snow – looking away from the flawed research behind said claim, as it fails to tell us which Saami language we’re talking about and how we got to said number – is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is the fact that the detailed knowledge of snow found among the Saami and conceptualised through the language(s) spoken by them hold(s) invaluable culturally relevant information that not only confirms our identity, but also simplifies our life in the areas of the world where we’re resident.

But why should people care? Survival of the fittest, right?

As linguists we often emphasise the importance and normality of language change and as speakers of majority languages, the advantage of speaking English, Spanish or e.g. Hindi seems by far more valuable than speaking what to the majority seems like an obsolete language. The answer is not as straight-forward and simple as one would want it to be. Language functions both as a communicative tool – and as such any language should be enough – and as a cultural, historical and sociological vehicle – and as such the loss of a language equals the destruction of a unique way of conceptualising the world. The monoglot majority often fails to see language as anything but a communicative system – even though language cannot and should not be perceived as a purely referential tool – when the reality is that all forms of language is situated and thus related to the history and very core of a people. In short, this actually means that we as linguists need to look away from purely using descriptive linguistics to document languages and instead start to engage in interactional linguistics, where we among other things dare to realise that all speakers of endangered languages are multilingual and that treating them as monoglot just strengthens the feeling of their endangered languages as being inferior to a stronger majority language, i.e. one of the main reasons why their languages are dying in the first place. We need to start looking at language as a capital that should not be preserved in a pristine condition purely for the sake of keeping another language alive, but as something that should be preserved for and by a people so that they can place themselves in relation to others in an ever-expanding world.

We need to stop documenting languages ‘just because’ and start focusing on why we do it and how we facilitate intra-generational language transmission. We need to promote a fair, equal form of code-switching, where both the endangered and the majority language is treated as a capital worth preserving. A linguist’s dictionary is a great tool, but we need to make sure that we promote the use of the words in said dictionary in a natural setting as well.

We do not need more linguists who look at languages as something detached from their speakers.

In the promotion and maintenance of endangered languages women have an important part to play, and the capitalist, patriarchal society promoted by Western colonialism is in many ways one of the biggest killers of languages; by treating women as second-class citizens, we simultaneously paint their cultures, languages and traditions as inferior and by doing this, we risk creating a society where languages aren’t passed on to future generations. Thus the task of preserving endangered languages is intimately linked with strengthening and promoting women as well.

Languages are decisive in how we place ourselves in this world, they are our most important resource and they determine how we go about with our daily lives, meaning that when we lose our languages, we lose ourselves.

In other words, while people who do argue for ‘one’ world language may have a point – language is there to facilitate communication – their point is dwarfed by the very real effects of language loss, as a dead language represents the loss of cultural knowledge, ethnic diversity and human development.

In somewhat exaggerated terms, losing a language is like dropping a nuclear bomb on a national archive; the entire history, a sense of identity and culture is lost when a language leaves this planet and while our capitalist world has taught us that unless we can touch it, it’s barely worth mentioning, the loss of language signifies the greatest loss of human capital imaginable.

When we lose indigenous Amazonian languages, we lose the knowledge of plants, animals and trees in the area, when we lose Polynesian languages, we lose the knowledge of navigation, sea life and emigration in the Pacific and so on and so-forth.


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