Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Beauty of Indigenous Languages

I have been working with indigenous languages for some time now. I have been very much fascinated by the orthographic properties that various languages have. However, questions may be arising: “Who cares about it anyway? What is in mother tongues that we should be concerned about beyond fancy grammar rules? Why should we really care about indigenous languages in the globalised world where English and certain strong languages have already made an economic fortress?” There are four things I would like to share with you.
Deep within a culture, there are indigenous knowledge systems that are practiced and are transferred from generation to generation. Such knowledge includes medicine, agricultural practices and even astronomy. For instance, there is an indigenous group in Mali called the Dogon. Anthropologists investigating the Dogon have reported that this ethnic group seems to possess advanced astronomical knowledge, including the idea of Sirius, the brightest star in the known universe. This idea has been well-known among themselves over centuries yet modern astronomy has revealed the idea of Sirius in mid 18th century. Another indigenous group of people, Boorong, living around Lake Victoria also have an independent knowledge of the same star. They call it Warepil. Such indigenous knowledge is what is referred to as ethnoscience. Quite related to ethnoscience is ethnomathematics that are indigenous mathematical systems. An example is, in Chichewa (my indigenous language), the numbering system is quintisimal or base five. This knowledge is often transferred traditionally without written documents. So as a language dies, so does ethnoscience.

Within an indigenous language, there are some beautiful linguistic elements. Man is well-known for observing patterns in an environment and describing them using some terminology. These terminologies and their associated descriptions are part of indigenous classification of the universe using lexicon & syntax. For example, reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reveals how the indigenous people of Umuofia village described a bicycle when they saw it for the first time: an iron horse. This term has a lot of ideas behind it explaining how the people identified themselves with new technology that was creeping into their culture. Seeing a bicycle was like seeing a mechanical horse, “an animal of transport” that they had associated themselves with over the years. Another subtle example is the concept of a Trinitarian God from a Hebrew word Elohim. The idea of a God who comprises three persons in himself is well understood by studying the language of Hebrews and how they perceived the supernatural. Such knowledge is called ethnolinguistics. By looking at such linguistic elements as grammar, proverbs and orthography, one can deduce the type of ideas that flow within a particular indigenous group and how those ideas shape the future of that generation.

One of the most significant factors that are facilitating globalization is commerce. People are using the internet to procure, purchase or sell items. There is too much business that is happening every minute of the day. But indigenous languages also play a wonderful role in commerce. While Western languages are influential in international trade, there are a lot more roles that indigenous languages play in traditional economic decisions. For example, despite that supermarkets and chain stores came in Malawi long time ago, we still have sunshine boutiques (kaunjika) in our townships. The concept of flea markets is refusing to die in Africa. This is what is called ethnoeconomics. But that is not all: primarily, an indigenous language constitutes a cultural identity. Our cultural and traditional customs continue to attract tourists. In a way, indigenous languages and culture are playing a very big role in the sector of tourism.

Lastly, every language is known for its philosophical components. Over the centuries, people have shared a set of indigenous values and customs through oral literature. These include poetry, drama, music and tales. These kinds of philosophies explain how the indigenous are connected to reality, existence, and reason among other issues. Such ideas are known as ethnophilosophy. Once I heard that when God wanted to impress the Britain with literature, he gave us Shakespeare. Ideas expressed through these philosophical components differ from one language to another. For example, in English language poems often come with rhyming lines. 

Yet that element is not found in Chichewa by its design. Hebrew poetry does not have rhymes either, but it uses a phenomenon called parallelism. Parallelism is a remarkable correspondence in the ideas expressed in two successive statements. The distinguishing feature of the Hebrew poetry is that parallelism of thought also contains rhythmical balancing of sentence components. An example of a parallelism is where you have two opposing ideas flowing in the same sentence. For instance, let’s consider this phrase: “The rich man's wealth is his strong city but the ruin of the poor is their poverty“. In this proverb, we find sets of contrasting ideas: rich versus poor, wealth versus poverty, and strong city versus ruin. Apart from giving contrasting ideas, Hebrew parallelism shows how the language was gradually developed. Some of the words that are used in parallelisms show that one term is one or two characters short from its corresponding member of parallelism. This tells us that such two concepts are viewed as connected ideas in that language. But these aspects of parallelism do not reveal a lot when viewed from outside the Hebrew language itself. Thus, each indigenous language comes with literature elements that are well understood within its own context.

In summary, deep within a language itself exist historical and cultural customs, economic policies, science and philosophy which are passed on from one generation to the next. These elements are transferred primarily through oral tradition. When a language dies, such important cultural markers disappear also. With globalization, many indigenous languages have become endangered. They are no longer competitive media of communication. In fact, recent surveys have revealed that one indigenous language dies in every fourteen days on average. Unless a language improves its visibility in the digital world, it is heading for extinction.


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