ELL: Language Loss

Victor Golla vkgolla at UCDAVIS.EDU
Wed Jun 20 23:14:02 UTC 2001


The problems that Megan Crowhurst encounters in trying to
provide a coherent definition of "indigenous" are telling ones.
The more seriously she takes the word, the worse the problems

"Indigenous", "autochthonous", "native", "aboriginal" are
all "blood and soil" concepts that got Europe into deep
trouble in the first half of the 20th century.  They
continue to bedevil the Balkans today, although elsewhere in
Europe they are fortunately marginalized on the ultra right.
(But note the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the recent British
election.)  Terms like these can be defined coherently only
within an illiberal, prescientific ideology.

It is unfortunate indeed that those of us who are deeply and
realistically concerned with the injustices committed against
the non-European inhabitants of the Americas, Australasia,
and sub-Saharan Africa have come to rely on this inherently
racist vocabulary.  Most of the time we employ words like
"indigenous" harmlessly enough (I write as the Secretary  of
an international organization with the I-word in its title),
but every so often -- and with increasing frequency, I fear --
the discussion turns political and legalistic, and the scent
of fascism is in the air.  Consider the constitution of Fiji.

If we linguists were as sensitive to language use as we are
to structure, we would probably long since have replaced
"indigenous" with "pre-European expansion", which is what we
usually really mean.  Guarani and Cherokee are certainly that,
whatever the blood quantum of their speakers or the sacredness
of the soil they are spoken on.

Creoles, mixed languages, and trading jargons are what they
are -- the product of interactions between Europeans and

--Victor Golla

Victor Golla, Secretary
The Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas
Box 555, Arcata, California 95518 USA
golla at ssila.org

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