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The struggle to resist linguistic empires


On Wednesday, I arrived home at the airport, drowsy and bitter after 27 hours in transit. I reached past someone to pull my suitcase from the carousel. 'Scuse me, sorry.' 'No worries,' he said. 'Cheers,' I replied. 

The exchange of words made me feel instantly at home. I’d been living in Papua New Guinea and Japan for almost six months, and in that time had only met one other Australian.

With my own accent all around me, and no lousy foreigners ruining it by commenting on how it sounds like British only weirder, I felt the warmth of belonging. For better or worse, my home is in Australia, my identity Australian. 

When I arrived home that evening, I read Aidan Wilson’s essay at The Drum, ‘Letting languages disappear is a crime against humanity,’ in which he argues that speaking and being educated in one’s native language, regardless of how small the language is, is a human right. 

I had just spent six months living and travelling with a linguist who is working on documenting and studying endangered languages, so I found the article clear and true, and an important contribution. 

The Ethnologue is the most referenced catalogue of world languages. It states that 389 – or nearly 6 per cent – of the world’s languages have at least one million speakers and account for 94% of the world’s population. By contrast, it says, the remaining 94% of languages are spoken by only 6 per cent of the world’s people.

But I foolishly went on to read the comments on Wilson’s article. Comment after comment shouted that if a language could not keep up – or rather, if the language was not English – it should die, die, die, as though it were a simple matter of natural selection. I wondered if any of the commentators had come from a linguistic background that had vanished. 

It’s true that languages acquire prestige when they are politically and economically dominant. English is the language du jour. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be acquired as a useful second, or third or fourth language by speakers of other languages. But to suggest ‘natural selection’ is to assume that there is something innately better about the English language. 

Language itself is arbitrary. It is spread, forcefully, by the dominant politics of colonialism and neoliberal trade. Although languages have changed and disappeared throughout the conquests of history, at no other time in human history have languages disappeared at the current rate.

The question, I have realised, is never really about languages whose speakers are dwindling. Their preservation would have zero impact on any of the commentators signing their death warrant. It is about the legitimacy – or the perceived illegitimacy – of indigenousness. 

The desire to celebrate the death of indigenous cultures is based on the assumption that there is nothing valuable about them, that they should assimilate or die. I spent a lot of time thinking about this while travelling. I was living in Bougainville and also Okinawa, both hotspots of indigenous activism. The real question that kept emerging was, if indigenous cultures are so insignificant in the first place, why is so much effort taken to decimate them?

The answer, I believe, lies in the acquisition and use of resources. In Bougainville, indigenous autonomy and the recognition of traditional land rights – which are totally, legally, operative – were suppressed in order to run a multi-billion dollar copper mine without paying royalties. 

In Okinawa, Japan refuses to recognise the Ryukyus as colonised territory, while describing their language as a dialect, in order to house 74 per cent of their US military presence there. This causes a myriad of social and economic problems for locals who have no recourse. 

In Australia, settlers used the resource of land to live on and trade. The existence of Aborigines here reminds us that our dominance in this country, as recent Australians, is due to their displacement and decimation, and that our subsequent trading of land as property has no ethical weight over traditional land tenancy. This fact alone is terrifying. If there is nothing innately better about the structure of our society, it too could be wiped off the planet.

There are scientific reasons why linguistic diversity is important. Linguistics and cognitive sciences study how the brain processes language and thought; such sciences try to determine what language is, and what combination of influences affects its structures: intelligence, environmental factors,innate factors. The more languages available to study, the better the science will be. As well, 75 per cent of plant-based pharmaceutical drugs we use were discovered though practitioners of bush medicine, whose medical knowledge had been passed on in languages which are now dying, along with such traditional knowledge.

But that’s not why we should care about language death. If we are able to simply step off a plane and hear a speaker of our language and sigh in relief, finally feeling that we are home, perhaps it is difficult to imagine not having such an essential pleasure. The despair of Indigenous people around the world is that their right to belong, to have an identity, which, for many, is located in language, is constantly under threat. And their efforts to preserve such culture are belittled.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, linguistics, languages, ethnography, colonialism, empire



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Existing comments

just let English absorb more new vocabularies from these languages

AZURE | 06 July 2012  

“Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind it” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Myra | 06 July 2012  

A great response article Ellena. How boring a world it would be if we all spoke the one language. One wonders if in a hundred years time Australia is colonised by say China, how would we feel like loosing English as our first language. You nail it as an issue of the legitimacy of indigenousness. Take away language and what's left is a scorched homogenous cultural landscape that's as exciting as watching paint dry.

Lawrence Wray | 06 July 2012  

As a speaker of a language (Scottish Gaelic) that is spoken by only 60,000 people (1% of the Scottish population), I fully endorse the idea that letting languages die is a crime against humanity. A few years ago, the SNP-administered Scottish government made Gaelic an official language with English. That has led to greater visibility for the language with bilingual signs in many places (including the centre of Glasgow), Gaelic on passports (alas still British ones!), a slight rise in the number of kids learning the language but above all great pride among native and non-native speakers alike in a language that has contributed a huge amount not only to Scotland but to humanity especially through its literature, music and song . The language now has a chance of survival beyond the current century and Scotland, and the world, will be the richer for it. There is still international discrimination. The name of one of Scotland's greatest 20th century poets, Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGhilleathain in the original), was mentioned in the context of being nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature some years back. His name was apparently taken off the list because they could not find anyone outside Scotland who was competent to judge his work in the original language! Australia has many Scottish Gaelic placenames - it might boost tourism to have them bilingual. Guma fada beo cananan beaga an t-saoghail! (Long may the small languages of the world live).

Duncan MacLaren | 06 July 2012  

Everyone needs to learn English so they can be part of the whole world, and English must be easier to learn. But one's native language must be kept for the sake of the people and for the sake of its contribution to the world. English must be used to help make that contribution known. The question of which language is learnt at school is complex, but I think that both must be taught

valerie yule | 06 July 2012  

Will the last language left standing be English, or American English, or one particular variety of American English, or what? Azure, you seem to think the only difference between languages is that they have different words. Other things, such as what you should have words for, and how you put the words together, are much more important, and far more interesting.

Gavan | 06 July 2012  

People who think the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the destruction of the ancient shrines in Timbuktu going on now are crimes against humanity should also agree that causing a language to become extinct is also a crime against humanity.

Gavan | 06 July 2012  

Whilst studying a language, a non-native
speaker will have picked up some words from dictionaries, novels or classes- words which at some time may have been prevalent or preferable, but which are now far down in frequency- for example,' fetch' instead of 'get', etc. Though the meaning usually comes through, there is an alien quality transmitted by unusual choice of words.But suppose that a foreigner learns to use all words at roughly the normal frequensies.Will that make his speech truly fluent? Probably not. Higher than the word level, there is an association level, which is attached to the culture as a whole- it's history, geography, religion, children's stories, literature, technological level and so on. For instance, to able to speak modern Hebrew absolutely fluently you need to know the Bible quite well in Hebrew.

Myra | 06 July 2012  

This is exactly right. And unfortunately many people that are sympathetic to your argument won't get the point. In the last paragraph of your piece you say it. It's not about the 'wondrous variety in the world' and how boring it would be without it or the fact that medicine has benefited from local knowledge that was preserved in language. The point is that real human beings speak these languages and live in these cultures and they are dying.

John | 09 July 2012  

I agree that preserving diversity is good, but when it becomes an obsession and is legislated, is there a chance this could actually hinder the natural evolution of languages? An example is French Canadians currently holding a symposium to come up with a suitable French word for "hashtag". If the early British Celts had a similar policy, they we wouldn't be speaking English today.

AURELIUS | 10 July 2012  

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