Language Lost and Found Department: Pay Up

by Translation Guy on September 12, 2012

When indigenous people lose a language, it’s worse than when losing their land, says linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann of the University of Adelaide.

“There’s a huge underestimation of the role of language,” he says. “Language reclamation is becoming increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty and improve their well-being.”

I’d imagine if Zuckermann was into real estate instead of language, his priorities might be a bit different. But he predicts that governments will come under increasing pressure to compensate indigenous people for lost languages in addition to the more concrete consequences of indigenous contact with industrial civilization, (i.e. getting shot at and having your land stolen.)

“It’s very much a Western idea to give money for the loss of land but not language, and I predict that in the future there will be compensation for language loss as intangible intellectual property,” says Zuckerman. “Language is the mouth of the land in Aboriginal culture, so it seems appropriate to give it rights too,” says Zuckerman

He is currently working with the Barngarla Aborigines of South Australia to restore what he calls “native tongue title” after the tribe endured linguicide (language murder) and the forcible removal of children from parents to inculcate the children in Western ways years ago.

Meanwhile, Barngarla land title claims are being buried under the excavatory ambitions of mining giant BHP Billiton, eager to extract the uranium laid down in Barngarla Dreamtime when the land was made.

Of the 250 Aboriginal languages once spoken in Australia, only 15 remain. Zuckermann was able to revive the Barngarla language using the notes of a Lutheran missionary who documented the language 170 years ago for Bible translation purposes. Thanks to his efforts, a few people know a few words, but that’s the nut from which mighty languages grow. Zuckerman, who is Israeli and a Hebrew speaker, has studied the reemergence of that ancient liturgical language into the daily tongue of millions of people.

Perhaps because my own linguistic background is so different, the value of language preservation and revival is less  obvious.

In my family, language loss is seen as a good thing. Back in bow-and-arrow days on the St. Lawrence, soon as Le Français showed up with their guns and Jesuits, my ancestors were quick to get baptized and drop Wyandotte for French in order to get firearms and a piece of the action in the global fur trade. And forthe second industrial revolution arrived in the 1900s, my Québécois relations were among the first to leave for the mills down south in New England. They covered their ancestral tracks by changing names and language, doing their best to imitate the high-status English-speakers on the other side of the tracks, much to the consternation of our Francophone Quebec cousins. In those days, if you were aiming any higher than a milkman in Manchester, New Hampshire  (the dairies liked to hire bilingual drivers), French was a liability, not an advantage, so for us, linguacide was not so much murder as suicide. Of course the cultural and ethnic similarity between Québécois and those fucking Anglais gave us a pass option not  available to those indigine who wear a birthday suit of a different color.

So in our family lore, language loss and cultural erasure is considered proof of familial resourcefulness and savvy, except during reunions in Quebec when we can’t talk to our cousins.

Surely this experience is not especially unique.  I’d love to hear campfire stories from other language losers, upside and down.

-A tantôt, -Guy Traduction (Please pardon my French)


  1. Jenks says:

    What a sell-out. No more poutine for you, Translation Guy!

  2. Carolyn Yohn says:

    Thanks for the alternate viewpoint to this debate! I’m always curious what the non-academic side of the “tragic” story might be. And really, languages are meant to be fluid, adaptive modes of interaction, right? So if it is deemed no longer useful (as in your family’s case) to the people who speak it, I’m not always convinced that it is a great loss. (Is that sacrilegious for a language professional to say?)

    • Ken says:

      Asking a linguist if a language should be preserved is like asking a barber if you need a haircut.

  3. April says:

    My family post WW2 had to become significantly less Germanic to get by in England, it’s those damn Brits I tell you.

  4. Good for Mr. Zuckerman, well done.

  5. Rayanne says:

    Hey, French people want to keep speaking French, learn to win wars, otherwise it’s the King’s English for you.

  6. Luis says:

    I have a branch of my family that Americanized themselves during the early Cold War by divesting themselves of all things Russian.

  7. Ellen says:

    My family has much the same story, where half of my ancestors moved south and abandoned French to assimilate, I imagine it’s more common than people might think.

    • Ken says:

      About half for us, too.

  8. Deborah says:

    So colonial era missionaries actually benefitted indigenous people and it only took almost 200 years.

    • Ken says:

      Yes and no.

  9. How does one put a monetary value on a language?

    • Ken says:

      That is an interesting question.

  10. Annette says:

    Excellent article.

  11. How can one underestimate the power of language? it’s the basis of communication and identity

    • Ken says:

      I do it all the time. It’s hell on my profit margins.

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