Biocultural diversity

Solidarity Foundation svzandt at
Tue Dec 17 19:30:57 UTC 1996


I received your report on the Berkeley conference by way of the Endangered
Languages List. Solidarity Foundation is a research and information service
affiliated with the Native American Council of New York City, and we are
extremely interested in these two topics and and the ways in which they may
be connected.

We regard diversity, whether biological or cultural, as the normal state of
affairs for this planet, so it seems logical that in those parts of the
globe where people have, whether by accident or design, retained much of
their traditional culture, they have also retained their traditional form of
land management, which (at least relatively speaking) fosters biodiversity
and knowledge of ecological relations. It is not only that their languages
preserve this wisdom. It is that the dominant language that replaces the
traditional one does NOT contain it, but rather, becomes a wide open channel
for meanings which conflict with and indeed actively contradict traditional
knowledge. It is true that anti-traditional messages can be communicated in
a minority language, but here they are on more difficult terrain, so to
speak. It is also true that traditional knowledge can be calqued into a new,
dominant language, but under contemporary conditions this is less and less
likely to happen. English is a beautiful language, and contains plenty of
traditional wisdom if you know where to look for it, but the kind of English
to which 99% of the people are exposed through mass media, including MTV,
advertising, and even most of what's taught in universities, is very
destructive to traditional culture - because of what's said and the way it's

The point I'm trying to make is well summed up in a paragraph from Robert
A. Williams' book, _The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: the
disocurses of conquest_, p.74:

"Perhaps no single historical incident better illustrates the transformations
occurring throughout Discovery-era Spain than Queen Isabella's acceptance of
Antonio de Nebrija's Spanish _Gramatica_, the first-ever grammar of any
modern European language. Upon its presentation in the momentous year 1492,
Isabella reportedly asked the scholar, "What is it for?" Nebrija answered
Her Majesty modestly but with profound presence and insight respecting the
demands of the new expansion-minded age. "Language," he reportedly stated,
"is the perfect instrument of empire." "

I think this principle may go a long way toward explaining the correlation,
noted at the conference, between low-diversity cultural systems and low
biodiversity. Incidentally, its contemporary remifications have been
explored by Ivan Illich in a long essay entitled something like "Vernacular
Language and Taught Mother Tongue."

Jeffrey Wollock
Research Director
Solidarity Foundation
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Mon, 23 Dec 1996 08:32:06 +1300 (NZDT)
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Tena koutou,

A Christmas Greeting from New Zealand to all friends working in the
linguistics and language worlds.

Greetings to all friends on the endangered language list. Have a  beautiful,
happy and joyous Christmas.
Thank you all for your many generous and wise contributions to this list and
for your hard work on behalf of speakers of the world's endangered languages..

A proverb on making the impossible (start to) happen:

"He pae maunga e kore e nekehia
He ngaru moana maa te ihu o te waka e waawaahi mai. "

A mountain range  cannot be shifted,
but the tall ocean swell will be dashed by the canoe prow."

I sing/sign off this list here, and indeed off the information
'superhighway', for the foreseeable future. My email address will no longer
operate so write to me at home if you need to be in contact. I'm going back
to the world of tribal radio in the Maori language, recording elders,
children's programmes and making documentaries.

Raarangi maunga tuu te ao, tuu te poo, raarangi taangata ka ngaro ka ngaro..
The mountain ranges stand for the long day and night of eternity, the
generations of men appear and fade away..


Piripi Walker
Director of Language Studies
Te Wananga o Raukawa
92 Horoeka St, Stokes Valley
New Zealand
Ph and fax 064-4-5636-215

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