Jan 10, 2019
The UN has declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages. Their aim is to raise awareness of the people who speak them and to appreciate their contribution to the world’s rich cultural diversity. Meryl Batchelder here calls it time to prevent these vulnerable voices from being lost, so that the wise words in the stories can help us move closer to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
‘Long ago, when animals were people…’ are the words spoken over centuries by indigenous Amazonian storytellers as they recount the parables of their ancestors. The stories intertwine the lives of humans and other creatures in the surrounding forests and nearby rivers. Through this creative use of language they reveal a deep wisdom about the ways the human and non-human worlds are intimately connected in the rainforest and how their shared resources can be protected.
Languages form part of a person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory. They are an essential tool for communication, education and development. However, studies by The National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages indicate that by the end of the century, 90 per cent of the world's 7000 languages could be lost due to globalisation. Recent analysis suggests minority languages are falling out of use at a rate of one every two weeks. The UN has therefore declared 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages.
It is imperative to keep indigenous languages alive as we can learn from their environmental wisdom. Ethnic groups developed strong relationships with the natural world over generations. They have lived sustainably in their environment for thousands of years whereas more ‘developed’ countries have brought the world to the edge of catastrophic climate collapse through rapid and relentless industrialisation over the last century. Unfortunately, capitalism and global population growth threaten the way of life of many indigenous people; their land is illegally encroached on and exploited by logging, mining, agriculture and oil extraction or the building of dams across their rivers.
The Kukama people of the Amazon Basin understood Responsible Consumption (SDG12) long before the United Nations. The key figure in their creation myth is a boa constrictor; the boa gave birth to the first Kukama person and protects the enchanted lakes. Children listen to their parents telling tales of the enchanted lakes where a greedy fisherman might vanish if he took too many fish – a simple story of the dangers of over-fishing. Stories encourage respect for resources and so both conservationalists and industrialists should heed the moral of these stories.
Endangered languages can vanish in a moment, when the last surviving speakers die. The numbers of people speaking indigenous languages dwindle as they are exposed to a dominant language at school, through media and around their villages. Imagine the incredible stories that could be told in Paakantyi, an Australian Aboriginal language still spoken in regions alongside the Darling River, but only by a few people. Their fables could help us manage drought conditions or forest fires which are currently affecting the region. In an effort to avoid losing the language, some schools have begun programs to attempt to reintroduce Paakantyi to a new generation.
Another vulnerable language is spoken by the Huaorani people from the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. They sing songs to their children that their ancestors have sung for thousands of years: songs about living; songs about growing food; and medicine songs. However, the Huaorani are threatened by oil companies which could introduce money, sickness and pollution. Families will be divided and their language could be lost; a tragedy for the Huaorani, but as those songs could also identify plants that could cure disease or feed the hungry it would also be a global loss.
The Māori world view is also closely connected to the land and nature. Their word ‘kaitiakitanga’ means to guard and protect the environment in order to respect the ancestors and secure the future. Whichever language we speak we all need to use one voice to speak up for the animals, plants and landscapes of Earth which have no voice of their own. We need to ensure their future. It is possible that we can become kaitiakitanga by listening to the words of wisdom shared by indigenous people and by focussing on the Global Goals.