Indigenous Languages in Final Throes

By Diego Cevallos*

MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica) - Hundreds of languages disappeared from Latin America and the Caribbean over the past 500 years, and many of the more than 600 that have survived could face the same fate in the not-so-distant future.

United Nations agencies and many experts maintain that it is an avoidable tragedy, but there are those who see it as the inherent fate of all but a few languages.

Faced with Western culture and the dominant presence of Spanish, Portuguese and English in the Americas, indigenous languages like Kiliwua in Mexico, Ona and Puelche in Argentina, Amanayé in Brazil, Záparo in Ecuador and Mashco-Piro in Peru, are just barely surviving, the result of their continued use by small groups of people -- most of whom are elderly.

But there are others like Quichua, Aymara, Guaraní, Maya and Náhuatl whose future looks a bit rosier, because overall these languages are spoken by more than 10 million people and governments support their survival through various educational, cultural and social programmes.

Around the globe there are some 7,000 languages in use, but each year 20 disappear. Furthermore, half of the existing languages are threatened, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

This agency, which promotes the preservation and diversity of the world's languages, maintains that the disappearance of even one language is a tragedy, because with it go a unique culture and cosmovision.

But not everyone sees it that way. "The extinction of languages is a phenomenon inherent in their very existence, and it has been happening since humans emitted their first sound with a linguistic meaning," José Luis Moure, a University of Buenos Aires philologist and member of the Argentine Academy of Letters, told Tierramérica.

In contrast, Gustavo Solís, a Peruvian linguist with expertise in vernacular and author of language studies of the Amazon region, says "there is nothing in the languages that says one should disappear and another should continue."

"Every disappearance of language and culture is a great tragedy to humanity. When it occurs, a unique and irreplaceable human experience is extinguished," Solís said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

There are cases, says this expert, that show it is possible to plan the revitalisation of languages so they won't die, but such efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean fall short.

When the Europeans arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, there were 600 to 800 languages in South America alone, but with the colonisation process "the vast majority disappeared. Today there are languages on their way to extinction because of the unequal contact between Western society and some indigenous societies," Solís said.

Fernando Nava, director of Mexico's National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI), said languages disappear through natural evolution, which is understandable, or through cultural pressure and discrimination against its speakers, which is preventable..

It is the second cause that many governments, international agencies and academics are fighting, because it is considered an unacceptable phenomenon, Nava told Tierramérica. In this area, Latin America and the Caribbean are just in the stage of raising awareness, he added.

According to UNESCO, half of the languages existing in the world today could be lost within "a few generations", due to their marginalisation from the Internet, cultural and economic pressures, and the development of new technologies that favour homogeneity.

In May, the UN agency will publish an extensive study about the languages of the Amazon region, many of them spoken by very few individuals. The study is a bid to draw international attention to their plight.

Surviving in the Amazon jungles are isolated indigenous groups, who refuse to have contact with the Western world and its "progress". They total around 5,000 people belonging to various groups of the Amazon Basin, among them the Tagaeri in Ecuador, Ayoreo in Paraguay, Korubo in Brazil and the Mashco-Piro and Ashaninka in Peru.

According to Rodolfo Stavenhagen, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and basic freedoms of indigenous peoples, these groups are facing "a true cultural genocide".

"I fear that under current circumstances it will be difficult for them to survive many more years, because so-called development denies the right of these peoples to continue being peoples," he said.

Although the list of languages and dialects in use worldwide is very long, the vast majority of the population speaks only a handful of languages, like English, Chinese, and Spanish.

To ensure that linguistic diversity is maintained, the international community agreed in recent years on a series of legal instruments, and experts hold regular meetings to discuss the issues.

One such meet took place Mar. 31 to Apr. 2 in the western U.S. state of Utah, where officials and academics from across the Americas studied ways to prevent the disappearance of dozens of languages in this hemisphere.

Since 1999, through a UNESCO initiative, Feb. 21 is celebrated as International Mother Language Day. There are also agreements in the UN system, like the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and its Action Plan, from 2001, and the Convention on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, signed in 2003.

Also dating from 2003 is the Recommendation on the Promotion and Use of Multingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace, and from 2005 the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

The Argentine expert Moure says it is important to work towards preserving languages, even when the number of speakers is small, because "they are markers of identity that merit maximum respect and scientific attention."

But "I am not so sure that the death of a language necessarily means the disappearance of the associated cosmovision, because its speakers never stop talking (unless they themselves disappear through disease or genocide), but rather, after a period of bilingualism, they adopt another language that is more useful to them because of its greater insertion in the world," he said

"This a fact of reality, and I believe it should be recognised without turning to excessive conspiracy theories," said Moure.

*Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Apr. 8 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.

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