ELL: Re: indigenous

Victor Golla vkgolla at UCDAVIS.EDU
Thu Jun 21 08:20:37 UTC 2001


Joan Smith/Kocamahhul writes:

>                                   the community I'm interested in
>are Arabic speakers in Turkey. As far as I've been able to find out the
>communities were originally Aramaic- and Greek-speaking (Greek in the
>cities, Aramaic in the rural areas)

"Originally"?  If documentation is the criterion, then "originally"
the people of most of Anatolia were speakers of Hittite and Luwian.
But of course there were people there before written records, who
spoke yet other languages of which we know nothing directly.  The
goal posts move.  There is no "original" situation, only a succession
of changes that lead back to the initial occupation of a given area
by Homo sapiens (and even that is hard to specify in a place like

With regard to the Ainus, and other small groups who have been
culturally and linguistically overwhelmed by more powerful non-
European neighbors, I confess to having my Eurocentric blinkers on
when I threw out "pre-European expansion" as a substitute for
"indigenous".  Obviously that won't work in lots of cases, and some
even more cumbersome phrase needs to be crafted that allows for
non-European (and pre-1500) sources of dominance and prestige.

My real point, though, is not to develop a new terminology, but
to warn about falling into ideological traps when talking about
language shift, especially the ideology of ethnic essentialism.
There is nothing fundamentally "right" (or "more right") about the
association of a particular population, genetically defined, with
a particular language in a particular piece of territory.  These
associations come and go, and it us up to us, as custodians of the
planet for our generation, to work out a reasonable and sustainable
balance between continuity and change.

Thus, the remedy for language "endangerment" (another term I'm not
entirely comfortable with) is not always preservation in the
strict sense, but often a kind of accommodation:  community
bilingualism, mixed linguistic codes, transference to a written
medium, etc.  A word like "indigenous" or "endangered" can get
in the way of seeing these developments for what they are.

For example, the Straits Salish people of NW Washington and
adjacent parts of BC -- particularly the Lummi Tribe -- have
developed a highly successful teaching program, by North American
Indian standards.  Estimates vary, but perhaps several hundred
Lummis have a decent command of a second-language variety of
Straits Salish, and more are being added each year.  However,
this variety differs substantially in phonology, grammar, and
lexicon from the Straits Salish spoken by members of the oldest
generation, of which only a few survive.  The difference is at
least as great as the one that separates King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon
from the language of Chaucer.  It is still, socially speaking,
an "Indian" language (just as, in a very different social and
historical context, Chinook Jargon was).  But is it "indigenous"?

What point is there in asking?

--Victor Golla

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