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Knowledge Fades As Africa Languages Die

Mon Mar 7, 8:05 AM ET

By TERRY LEONARD, Associated Press Writer

MAPUTO, Mozambique - A U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report on protecting traditional knowledge argues that beyond a devastating impact on culture, the death of a language wipes out centuries of know-how in preserving ecosystems "” leading to grave consequences for biodiversity.

The United Nations estimates half of the world's 6,000 languages will disappear in less than a century. Roughly a third of those are spoken in Africa and about 200 already have less than 500 speakers. Experts estimate half the world's people now use one of just eight languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and French.

Villagers in Indonesia's Kayan Mentarang national park, for example, have for centuries practiced a system of forest management called Tanah Ulen, or "forbidden land." On a rotating basis, elders declare parcels of the forest protected, prohibiting hunting and gathering.

Along a boulevard lined with flowering acacia trees, young people in designer clothes and high-heeled shoes chatter on the sidewalk struggling to be heard over the driving Latin rhythms spilling from a nightclub.

Maputo's vibrant nightlife lets people forget it is the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. Here you can eat Italian, dance like a Brazilian and flirt in Portuguese.

One thing that's in ever shorter supply and perhaps even less demand: Mozambique's own indigenous languages, the storehouse for the accumulated knowledge of generations.

"Sons no longer speak the language of their fathers ... our culture is dying," laments Paulo Chihale, director of a project that seeks to train Mozambican youths in traditional crafts.

While Mozambique has 23 native languages, the only official one is Portuguese "” a hand-me-down tongue from colonial times that at once unifies a linguistically diverse country and undermines the African traditions that help make it unique.

Chihale looks up from his cluttered desk at MozArte, the U.N.- and government-funded crafts project, and complains bitterly about how his nation's memory is fading away.

"Our culture has a rich oral tradition, oral history, stories told from one generation to another. But it is an oral literature our kids will never hear," says Chihale, who speaks the Chopi language at home.

Anthropologists speculate that tribal people whose ancestors have lived for tens of thousands of years on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands survived Asia's tsunami catastrophe because of ancient knowledge. They think signs in the wind, the sea and the flight of birds let the tribes know to get to higher ground ahead of the waves.

But finding economic reasons to keep tradition alive can be a challenge.

In Mozambique, cheap foreign imports have destroyed the market for local crafts beyond what little can be sold to tourists. Horacio Arab, the son of a basket weaver who learned his father's trade, said he improved his skills at MozArte but then abandoned weaving because he could not make a living.

Mozambican linguist Rafael Shambela says the pressures from globalization are often too great to resist. To conserve native languages and culture will require societies to find ways to cast them with an inherent value, he argues.

On a small campus along a dirt road south of Maputo, Shambela has joined a government effort to write textbooks and curriculums that will allow public school students to learn in 16 of the country's 23 languages. But the program is limited by Mozambique's poverty.

"A language is a culture," says Shambela, who works for Mozambique's National Institute for the Development of Education. "It contains the history of a people and all the knowledge they have passed down for generations."

The trade-off in settling on Portuguese as a unifying force after independence in 1975 has been an erosion of the rites and rhythms of traditional life.

"From dating to mourning, the rules are becoming less clear," Shambela says.

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Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2007 by The Independent/UK

The Languages of Extinction: The World's Endangered Tongues

Every fortnight, another language dies; some 40 per cent of the world's languages are thought to be at risk. Now a new study has identified those that are most endangered.

by Claire Soares

For the Nivkh people of eastern Siberia, it's not as easy as one, two, three. Depending on whether they are talking about skis or boats or batches of dried fish, there are different ways of counting. Twenty-six different ways in fact. Small wonder, then, that 90 per cent of Nivkhs choose to communicate in Russian but that choice has put Nivkh on the list of endangered languages.

And it is not alone. Linguists believe half the languages in the world will be extinct by the end of the century. The 80 major languages such as English, Russian and Mandarin are spoken by about 80 per cent of the global population, while the 3,500 linguistic minnows have just 0.2 per cent of the world keeping them alive.0919 05

"The pace of language extinction we're seeing, it's really unprecedented in human history," said Dr David Harrison, author of the book When Languages Die. "And it's happening faster than the extinction of flora and fauna. More than 40 per cent of the world's languages could be considered endangered compared to 8 per cent of plants and 18 per cent of mammals."

When dolphins or eagles become extinct, people can get sentimental and mourn their passing but the death of a language is an unnoticed event, despite the fact it's happening more frequently, with one language being killed off every fortnight. Globalisation and migration are the main culprits. Economic pressures force people to move from their village to the cities, local languages are coming under threat from the lingua franca of the workplace. Children also play a key role in killing of a language, such as a child growing up speaking Mayan and Spanish soon figuring out that Spanish is better because it's spoken in school and on television.

A study by Dr Harrison and Greg Anderson, the director of the Living Tongues Institute, has identified five hotspots for endangered languages around the world - Northern Australia, Central South America, Oklahoma and the south-west USA, the Northwest Pacific Plateau and Eastern Siberia.

In the course of their research they came across Australian Charlie Mungulda, an Aboriginal living in the Northern Territory who is believed to be the last speaker of Amurdag, a language previously thought to have been extinct. Dr Harrison plays a recording of the elderly Charlie, recalling words spoken by his late father. There's a long pause after the voice fades away. "Those are some of the very last words we will ever hear in Amurdag," the linguistics professor says with a sigh. That is unless someone shows a natural pronunciation gift when faced with the 100 or so words, such as "aburga" (rainbow serpent) that the linguists managed to scribble down.

Losing languages means losing cultural insights. The often-quoted examples of Eskimos having many of words for snow, or Africans having many of words for rice are perhaps overly-familiar. But did you know that the 200 or so people who speak Toratan on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi have a word for waking up and finding something's changed? Open your eyes and find you've fallen out of bed in the night? Matuwuhou!

Or find yourself herding reindeer with Todzhu people of Siberia and want to point out a particularly charming, five-year-old castrated reindeer that can be ridden? The word you're looking for is chary.

And the loss of languages also often means a loss of identity. Serge Sagna, a Senegalese PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who returned to his village recently to study its Bandial language, can personally testify to that. "My identity is completely bound up in my language. It reflects a unique view of the world, and a whole history without which we cannot move forward."

Bandial has been pushed aside in Senegal, not only by the former colonial language French, in which most professional business and education is conducted,but also by Wolof, the language of hip-hop, the streets and the national mbala dance craze. Even Mr Sagna reluctantly admits that, in two generations, his native tongue will be no more.

But perhaps more important than the individual words and cultural diversity are the vast chunks of human knowledge that accompany languages to the grave.

"We live in the information age, where information and knowledge are supposed to be of value, and we're running the risk of jettisoning millennia of knowledge," Dr Harrison said. "Most of what we know about endangered species is encoded in languages that have never been written down. So in saving languages we may be able to help save species and eco-systems,"

As Exhibit A, take the two-barred flasher butterfly of Central America. It was long assumed to be a single species but the native Mexican tribe, the Tzeltal, knew better. They had a well-honed system of distinguishing between the different larvae, depending on what crops they attacked. Eventually, Western science caught up with them and biologists confirmed at least 10 species of the butterfly.

Similarly the 4,000 speakers of Brzail's Kayapo tongue differentiate between 56 folk species of bees, based on anything from flight patterns to the quality of honey.

The Kallawaya herbalist healers living in Bolivia, have gone one step further. For the past 500 years, they have encrypted their knowledge of thousands of medicinal plants in a secret language handed down in the practitioner families from father to son. It's patenting by language, as it were.

"Kallawaya is an excellent example of a language that could be patented for both its form and content, for the economic well-being of the community that invented it, and for protection against predatory pharmaceutical corporations that seek to exploit that knowledge without recompense," says Dr Harrison.

So what can be done to preserve these languages and the knowledge that they articulate?

In Australia, Doris Edgar is one of the last three remaining speakers of Yawuru. Ms Edgar, in her 80s, visits schools in the town of Broome, Western Australia, imparting to eager pupils the Yawuru names of local plants and their traditional uses.

Dr Anderson reckons it takes three to four years to adequately document a language at a cost of up to £200,000. "We have people and communities that desire our help to save their language, what we lack are the funds to do that," he said.
Originally posted by Yemaya:
Languages and cultures too....sad to say. Frown


Culture is politics; politics is culture. The two are inseparable. In fact, politics proceeds out of culture, then turns around and defines culture. ...
...Sekou Toure understood the importance of culture. He loved intensely, I mean personally delighted in, his people's culture. But besides that, the party clearly understood that the traditional culture was a key element from which to mold an African character to the revolution. So they took concrete steps to preserve, develop, and institutionalize nationally, many, many traditional forms. So they supported dance groups and schools, musicians, artists, and the famous griots and so on. But not just the arts, also the ethics and values of traditional culture, and African sensibility that I call African humanism.
...You don't see that cultural emphasis in Guinea today. That's a real loss. Very serious, very sad. What is worse is that it is not only in Guinea. All over the continent many traditional cultures are disappearing, being replaced by the absolutely worst values of Western pop culture exports. And with them go many beautiful, important and irreplaceable aspects of African humanism. That is one of the real tragedies of Africa in this century. Because this fundamental element of our being can never, never be replaced. The effect of this loss on our youth is particularly painful and destructive.

-Kwame Ture(formerly Stokely Carmichael)
'We said to them, 'Come closer' but they said to us, 'Go further back''

Increasing number of isolated groups being found in world's last wildernesses

John Vidal, environment editor
The Guardian
Saturday October 6 2007 "First just one came out, then two, then three, four, five, six, seven, but there were more than that in total. We had a dozen machetes, a dozen knives and some axes and pots with us. We gave these to them. Not by hand, but by leaving them on the beach. We said to them, 'Come closer' but they didn't want to. They said to us, 'Go further back, further back,' so we did."

The encounter between José, a Peruvian from the Las Piedras river area near the border with Brazil, and members of the large isolated Mashco-Piro tribe living in the deep Amazonian rainforest, took place this year and was described to the anthropologist Richard Hill, of Survival, the international campaign for tribal peoples.

Following a series of similar encounters and incidents, such as one this week when a Peruvian government team photographed a group of 21 Indians from the air, Mr Hill and other anthropologists are reassessing how many tribes there may be left who have chosen to shun the 21st century.

"Only 30 or so years ago, it was believed there were just 12," said Stephen Corry, the director of Survival. "Now we think there are 107 living in isolation. As more and more incursions are made into the forest, more and more groups are being found. The more people look, the more are being found," he said.

Some tribes who shun contact have a fair idea of life outside the forest, according to Mr Corry, and may have machetes which they could have acquired from contact with other groups. "Others may have had contact with outsiders generations ago, before they retreated deeper into forests because of incursions by westerners. Others may have no idea of country, other languages, or money, and no one has got close to them".

This year the Brazilian government increased its estimate of the number of isolated tribes in its part of the Amazon from 40 to 67. But it acknowledged some were reduced to a few individuals. One tribe is believed to be down to one man, known as the Man of the Hole, who digs holes in the forest to catch animals and fires arrows at anyone who comes near.

There is another large group of uncontacted tribes in eastern Peru, where the government has licensed 70% of the forest to oil and logging companies. These companies are coming into close contact with groups that were suspected but not encountered. Peruvian officials have tried to deny their presence, but the evidence is now incontrovertible. "We think there are 15 groups," said Mr Hill. "Many are the descendants of tribes contacted over 100 years ago, during the rubber boom, who fled the prospect of enslavement and decimation by new diseases."

The other concentration of groups is in West Papua, where vast areas of forest and mountain have been barely explored and access is particularly difficult because of the Indonesian military. Little research has been done, but occasional sightings of tribes by missionaries in aeroplanes suggest there could be as many as 40. At least 16 isolated groups are thought to live in the vast, mostly untouched Mamberamo river basin, an area almost the size of Britain.

Elsewhere, there are three known isolated groups in the Andaman islands of India, five in Bolivia, possibly one or two in Colombia and Suriname, one in Paraguay, and maybe one or two bushmen groups in southern Africa. In 1984, the Pintupi, semi-nomadic people, came out of the Australian desert.

Sydney Possuelo, the director of the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano and former head of the Brazilian government's department of unknown tribes, has led many expeditions into the Amazon to try to protect such groups. "What is happening is that groups are constantly moving around because of the pressure from the development activities of white people," he said.

He said the greatest concentration might be in the protected Vale do Javari indigenous area, with as many as 1,350 uncontacted people. Most, he said, probably fled there after contact with Europeans searching for timber or gold many years ago.

All known isolated groups are thought to be in danger. "The greatest threats come from our permanent need for growth, in the search for minerals, energy, timber and agriculture," said Mr Possuelo. "The losses really start a long time before contact. The reduction in size of the territories of uncontacted peoples because of the constant expansion of our extractive industries and consequent reduction of the areas where they move around hunting and fishing, jeopardises their sources of food and so reduces their ability to survive."

Mr Corry said there was also a very significant threat of disease. "More than 20% of the Yanamami Indians died in the 1980s and 90s because of contact with gold-miners who brought in illnesses. Following exploration on their land in the 1980s, more than 50% of the previously uncontacted Nahua tribe died in Peru. Ninety percent of Indians in the Javari valley, including six uncontacted tribes, suffered from malaria or hepatitis brought into the area in 2006.

"They remain in isolation because they choose to, and because encounters with the outside world have brought them only violence, disease and murder. They are among the most vulnerable peoples on earth, and could be wiped out within the next 20 years unless their land rights are recognised and upheld. Surely the world is big enough for all of us, including those whose way of life is most different to ours."

Killer diseases

Isolated tribes have little or no immunity to the diseases brought in by outsiders. Colds and flu become killers, and 50-90% of tribe members commonly die from first contact with outsiders. The result is that entire cultures that have taken centuries to evolve can be being wiped out in days as disease invades a population. Epidemics of measles, smallpox, yellow fever, whooping cough, influenza and later malaria have all had a devastating effect on indigenous peoples in the Amazon and elsewhere. Anthropologists now take precautions including wearing masks to avoid accidentally passing on diseases.
Originally posted by Norland:
At the rate humanity's going, ain't gonna be anyone left on Earth to speak languages. Earth's gonna look like Pluto, and I ain't talkin' Disney.

There will probably be a population crash in this century. I wouldn't be surprised if it drops below 2 BILLION by 2100. Considering the wars that will occur in the process the global social psychological impact will be tremendous.

I wonder how many nukes will get used.

The languages can all be recorded and analyzed and the info stored digitally. But how many people will care in 1000 years? How many Black Americans are interested in learning any African languages?


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