Let's celebrate indigenous languages!

October 31, 2018
Let's celebrate indigenous languages!

The United Nations has declared that 2019 will be the Year of Indigenous Languages. Most of those providing translation services appreciate the incredible cultural significance that language holds. Yet our languages are dying out at an alarming rate, with indigenous languages being some of those most at risk. 

A linguistic emergency

Alaskan Governor Bill Walker has warned of a “linguistic emergency” due to the likely extinction of all 20 of his state’s Native American languages by the end of the century. Despite the efforts made since the passing of the Native American Languages Act in 1990, the previous century’s suppression of indigenous tongues has taken a heavy toll. It is a situation that is mirrored not only across the US, but in almost every country around the world. 

In naming 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages, the UN is seeking to raise awareness of the value of such languages to the rich diversity of our world and to the way that we understand and perceive that world. 

The natural world

Many indigenous languages carry with them links to the natural world that simply do not translate into other languages or into many aspects of our frenetic modern society. As such, the loss of a language means the loss of knowledge and of tradition. 

Rosalyn R LaPier from the University of Montana has recently worked on compiling a lexicon of the indigenous Blackfeet language. The process revealed some fascinating insights into the differences between Blackfeet and English and the way in which words are married to cultural concepts or ways of life. “Herb” is an interesting example. In English, it is used to describe various plants, including those with which we flavour our food. The closest translation in Blackfeet – “aapíínima’tsis” – means “a tool that doctors use.” The translation highlights the different value afforded to plant life and the rich complexity that is inherent to each and every language. 

Promoting indigenous languages – the royal touch 

There is much that can be done to promote and celebrate indigenous languages. As translation professionals, we can play our part, as can figures who are in the public eye. 

The UK’s Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, recently demonstrated how powerfully this can be achieved. While speaking in the ancestral home of local New Zealand tribes, he delivered the first portion of his speech in Maori. This was no quick Maori translation that an aide had penned, but several full sentences that the Prince had taken the time and care to learn. His efforts were well received, with claps and gasps from the assembled dignitaries. 

Prince Harry’s use of Maori created a far deeper connection with his audience than any speech in English could possibly have done. It showed a deep respect for those with whom he was meeting. It also brought the Maori language to global attention in a way that few figures in the public eye have achieved in recent years. 

Indigenous language translation

There are plenty of ways in which we can celebrate indigenous languages. A quick Google throws up plenty of results, from Disney princess songs being sung in their native languages to YouTube videos providing a smattering of words from indigenous languages around the globe. 

With the emphasis on promoting and celebrating these languages being led by the United Nations in 2019, it’s time to do all we can to raise awareness of indigenous tongues. How will you rise to the challenge? Will you be learning a few words of a new language next year, or celebrating our global linguistic heritage in some other way? We would love to hear about your plans, so do leave a comment below to let us know what you’ll be doing to participate in the Year of Indigenous Languages. 


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