general,  language advocacy

On Indigenous Languages

So… 2019 is the year we celebrate all indigenous people, their nations and their cultures through the lens of their languages. This is the year we create, if it didn’t exist, a global awareness about the cultural wealth, the economic potential but also the political woes of these people.

Language is the window looking straight into the heart of a society and thanks to which we can gain, if not an understanding, at least an insight of their values and of their relationships to the world and to one another.

Now don’t take me wrong. I am not going to continue this with the bucolic view of the indigenous tribe at one with nature, so much unlike me, the evil-but-it-isn’t-my-fault Westerner.

Two reasons. First, I don’t believe that people are fundamentally different (opinion, not fact). Second, the wording itself bothers me, and that’s really what I am talking about here.

What does that mean, exactly, for a language to be indigenous?

UNESCO clearly targets those groups and communities whose lifestyles, cultures and languages are not the dominant ones of their countries. But is that enough? Are the Amazonian tribe, the Same herding traditions, the Navajo on their horses, and the many, many other, sometimes caricatured, shortcuts that can come to my mind, faithful to the definition of indigenous?

Despite the heavy load that both the noun and the adjective indigenous carry, it is interesting to look at what hides behind the term. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists a few synonyms for indigenous, and within the definition for the adjective itself:

indigenous applies to that which is not only native but which, as far as can be determined, has never been introduced or brought from elsewhere. “

In French, the implied colonial sneer became a discomfort, until indigenous was replaced by autochtone (autochthon, autochthonous), which simply means ‘that lives in its original territory’. Pretty much the same, then, without the painful history. As benign this change may seem, it is important for the populations concerned: they have been renaming themselves in all majors languages for the past decade or so: First Nations, or their own individual names. It isn’t one size fits all.

But this also leads me to another point. As Wikipedia points out, indigenous people may not dress in their traditional way anymore. They may have been ‘assimilated’ into the mainstream culture, more often than not that of the conqueror, the colonizer. How long can a community’s customs survive when surrounded by scorn and limited by laws? Some can, many cannot, but the latter shouldn’t be blamed. Again, it isn’t one size fits all.

Europe, with our 200 or so languages, major and small, is today one of the regions of the world with the poorest linguistic diversity. Its minority languages are at best called regional, and at worst, dialects or patois. So, indigenous or not? If I refer to the definitions above, yes, without a doubt. The attachment to each cultures and languages exists and resists despite a considerable societal and political pressure. The latter does, however, succeeds in rendering these communities more fragile, sometimes on the brink of extinction.

It’s a shame, because Europe is making a very good business out of its diversity of local cuisines and traditions. But in reality, what is left of a culture when it is only served to tourists? What is left of a language when it is only used to name a restaurant? Kenavo everyone, and thank you for coming?

In my eyes, calling one language indigenous and another a dialect looks a lot like acknowledging that one is a fight and the other a lost cause. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learned here too, from the Inuit and the Cherokee and the Mapuche: that the shame that many ‘European indigenous people’ feel towards their languages is not a curse, and that the pride can be won back.

Photo by XIIIfromTOKYO, CC BY-SA.3.0

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