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7 February 2011
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Around three-quarters of the world's 6,000 languages are spoken by indigenous people. Each of those languages embodies their perceptions, beliefs and knowledge. Language is inseparable from the identity and well-being of any group, and is the means for carrying traditions through generations.

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The diversity of indigenous languages across continents is enormous - and evidence of the vast spans of time during which these societies have existed. In pre-settled California alone, linguists estimate that the original populations spoke about 80 different languages, most now extinct. These languages are generally without a written tradition; almost all forms of history, spirituality and practical knowledge depend on the spoken word, and are lost once a language has died.

Language is what gives an individual their identity and confirms their links with their family, community and culture. Additionally, language is often a source of pride and one of the attributes that defines a tribal group from the dominant culture. More fundamentally for tribal people in animist cultures (those who believe that plants and objects in the world around them have souls), there is a magical connection between a word and the object or person it names. The act of naming penetrates to the inner heart of creation. To lose their language is to forfeit not only their connection with the world, but also their power over it.

Tribal languages are dying out every day. Some linguists estimate that around 5,000 languages or dialects have disappeared in the last 100 years. The pace of this loss continues to accelerate as the market economy reaches even remote corners of the world and indigenous peoples learn outside languages in order to become part of it.

Because language can link people so closely to their beliefs and the land around them, the intentional elimination of languages has been very important in efforts to oppress, marginalise, or exploit their identity. To lose a language is to lose an entire way of life. For instance, when Europe began colonising the New World, there was a concerted effort to wipe out indigenous languages and replace them with European ones.

Today, the spread of global monoculture is a similar process. In fact, the reach of satellite-based media empires is far greater - and potentially just as damaging - as the colonial empires of the past. This combined with education often being in the language of the dominant culture is vastly contributing to the accelerating extinction of indigenous languages.


Brody, H (2002)
The Other side of Eden, Faber & Faber, UK

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