Aqilokoq: Snow that falls softly and gently, in Inuit.
Cacahkinosew: In Cree, a grey and speckled trout.
Etthen: The way a herd of caribou lights up the land, like stars in the sky, in Chipewyan.
Each of these words originates from a language spoken for centuries by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Together, they paint a picture of the unique experiences felt by certain Indigenous tribes – snowing, fishing, hunting. Each word expresses a thought, and holds an irreplaceable beauty, that cannot be articulated by any other language.
Day by day, the world is losing this beauty.
We are witnessing the extinction of indigenous languages; not just in Canada, but around the world. Ninety percent of the population speaks 100 of the most used languages, out of the 7,000 languages spoken on earth today; this means that 98% of the world’s languages are spoken by 10% of the population. According to the National Geographic, nearly half of these 7,000 languages spoken on our planet will die out in the next century as communities abandon their native tongues in favour of English, Mandarin, or Spanish. It is estimated that one language disappears every 14 days.
Some expect the rates of linguistic devastation to climb even higher. Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, suggests that only 10 percent of languages currently spoken will survive to 2100.
In Canada, this problem hits particularly close to home. Of the 194 indigenous languages spoken in North America, nearly 63 percent are spoken only by adults or elders.
It was this statistic that inspired Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to increase annual funding for indigenous languages to 23 million Canadian dollars in December and promised to introduce an Indigenous Languages Act to protect them. The announcement came two years after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the government to invest in the revitalization of indigenous languages. According to the Commission, Canada spends just 9.1 million dollars on programs supporting the dozens of indigenous languages that populate the nation, compared with 348.2 million dollars spent on the country’s two official languages, French and English.
Now, almost eight months later, nothing has happened.
At first glance, the world’s loss of languages may seem unimportant. But the reality is that this issue extends far deeper than linguistics. Language is a gateway to culture, and the disappearance of indigenous languages is a threat to the human rights of Indigenous communities across the globe. This is because languages aren’t simply means of communication. They define one’s cognitive perception of reality. In the words of Daniel Nettle, author of Vanishing Voices, “to preserve our languages is also to preserve ourselves and our diverse heritage.”
The loss of a language often means a loss of cultural identity to the community that once spoke it. Traditions passed down from generation to generation, like arts and crafts or traditional storytelling, are intrinsically linked to the traditional language. In the words of Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk Territory Indigenous Human Rights Activist, “the language of the peoples connects us to the land, to our ancestors, and to our spirituality”. Without these links to the past, members of a community can lose their roots, their sense of belonging; a part of themselves.
Indeed, linguistic assimilation is a precursor to cultural assimilation. As dominant languages become more widespread, linguistic minorities are prevented from participating in the workforce and engaging in civic life; they are socially excluded from politics, education, and employment. Marginalization and discrimination pressure many Indigenous populations, particularly younger generations, to abandon their cultural roots and learn the dominant language. The loss of indigenous languages is a direct contributor to the assimilation of Indigenous populations, and is part of the systemic oppression that Indigenous communities across the globe have known for centuries.
The loss of language also means the loss of human heritage. Aboriginal languages are reservoirs of accumulated wisdom; of historical, spiritual, and environmental knowledge, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Because most endangered languages are concentrated in ecologically diverse regions of the world, the languages of Indigenous Peoples often contain knowledge unknown to modern science. For example, a language might make a lexical distinction between two different types of plants, information that could offer a medical benefit to humanity.
Similarly, cultural information captured by a language’s lexicon is lost when the language dies. For example, the Hopi tribes of Central America do not view time as linear, and speak of time as perpetually occurring; language reveals that these tribes have no notion of chronology. The Apache tribes associate place names with proper moral standards, providing insight as to their cultural and historical associations with these places.
In the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. When we lose a language, we lose our culture, our roots, and ourselves. We lose a part of the fundamental human experience that goes with it.
To conclude with the words of an elder of the Navajo tribe:
If you do not open your eyes,
The sky does not exist.
If you do not breathe,
The air does not exist.
If you do not walk,
The land does not exist.
If you do not speak,
The world does not exist.