In the 20 minute speech which marked her debut as the 29th Governor General of Canada last week, Julie Payette did not just expectedly speak in Canada’s two official languages, French and English, but also in Algonquin: the language of the people upon whose unceded territory Canada’s capital stands.
Canada is in a period of history marked by a growing recognition of the precariousness of indigenous languages—many of which are endangered. In a speech which served, at least partially, as a platform for declaring Ms. Payette’s own commitment to reconciliation, the choice seems an apt one. In a more international context, where the endangerment of indigenous languages around the globe has become an increasingly urgent issue, the choice is even more timely and important.
International awareness surrounding the importance of protecting endangered and indigenous languages is greater now than it has ever been. Last year, the UN declared that 2019 will be the year of indigenous languages. Prior to this announcement, September 2017 marked the 10 year anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which established the right of indigenous peoples to “revitalize, use, develop and transmit” their languages and other forms of cultural communication. Rights groups have also popped up globally to support endangered and indigenous languages all around the world. Even Disney has joined the effort, making free screenings of its recent film “Moana,” which borrows from Maori mythology in its story about a Polynesian princess, available in the Maori language at thirty cinemas across New Zealand this fall.
Despite all of this seeming progress, of approximately 7 000 languages spoken worldwide today, experts suggest that as many as 50% could disappear by the end of this century if current patterns are allowed to persist.
A number of factors contribute to the endangered status and impending extinction of endangered languages around the globe. The most heinous causes, involving the forced assimilation of native populations have, for the most part, been curbed in recent decades—leaving populations on nearly every continent to grapple with the consequences of these programmes and attitudes. However, there are an array of less sinister, but no less damaging, causes of linguistic endangerment which are even harder to combat and more difficult to isolate and to identify.
Indeed, in an increasingly globalized world, it is sometimes easier to survive, to make a living, and to participate in the mainstream culture, if you speak whatever language most people around your immediate community do. This means that members of new generations are sometimes choosing not to learn the language their parents and grandparents spoke. And the harm of this kind of assimilation is, often, difficult to decipher.
To forcibly take someone’s language away from them is an obvious act of cultural violence. But it can also be malevolent to create circumstances in which the continued communication of endangered languages between one generation and the next is unsustainable. To destroy or allow for the destruction of a language is, essentially, to likewise destroy or allow for the destruction of a cultural identity. This, like more obvious forms of cultural assimilation, is a form of cultural violence as well and poses a direct threat to international peace. The fate of at-risk languages is a slow-burning crisis in the realm of international human rights.
It is important, therefore, to put Ms. Payette’s recent linguistic gesture in context. While her choice to present part of her speech in Algonquin might seem a hollow diplomatic gesture to some, it also represents a clear effort to recognize the wisdom and authority of the Algonquin people—and to do so publicly, within the confines of an almost comically anachronistic colonial job title. The use of Algonquin does not itself solve any of the problems that Ms. Payette, the Canadian people, and people in countries all over the world are trying to confront. How do we end cycles of oppression and how do we move on from the histories of oppression which are sometimes still happening and of which we are a part? Questions like this are still in dire need of being addressed. Still, to confront such questions is, necessarily, to step into a world of symbols and, in this context, symbols like Ms. Payette’s gesture have real meaning.
It is possible to interrupt current patterns of language extinction. To do so, governments need to enable circumstances in which fluent speakers can pass their knowledge down to future generations. However, they also need to undo the damage done by marginalizing endangered and indigenous languages throughout history. In this sense, the story of how New Zealand writer and director Taika Waititi, who worked on the original English-language version of “Moana,” convinced Disney to have the film translated—as it eventually was by Taika Waititi’s sister Tweedie—is as important as a Governor General’s decision to address her nation in an indigenous language.
As stated by Haami Piripi, the former head of a New Zealand government body charged with promoting the Maori language, “The language has to be made cool and sexy and relevant to young people, and this movie is the perfect way to make that happen.”
The film, shown as part of an annual week-long celebration of the Maori language in New Zealand, was presented in this case without English subtitles. Despite this fact, screenings were fully booked within thirty minutes and parents and children with varying abilities to speak and understand the Maori language showed up in droves.
Language is derived from culture—of the habits, stories, values, and perspectives of a given people. Language preservation, therefore, needs both song and story, as well as arguably a significant online presence to truly thrive. Combating linguistic extinction consequently means stimulating curiosity and backing cultural enterprises which can help a language to thrive. It means encouraging children to want to learn their parents’ or grandparents’ language in addition to providing fluent speakers with the financial and educational resources they need to transmit their linguistic knowledge.
Some of these aforementioned endeavours are already on their way, but they deserve and require all the help they can get. We cannot celebrate difference passively or turn a blind eye to the systems of linguistic assimilation so many of us continue to perpetuate. When the stakes are intangible, learning a new phrase, learning an endangered language or making a film available in the traditional language of the culture on which it was based can all represent a huge step forward. Even a symbolic gesture, such as the one offered by Canada’s new Governor General Julie Payette, can be conducive to positive change.
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