Nations should mind all their languages – even the indigenous ones

Language is more than communication. It also taps into powerful currents of identity and meaning
Declan McVeigh

Hands up if you know where Tiohtià:ke is. Or Cadi. Or Te Whanganui-a-Tara. If you’re struggling, don’t feel too bad – you already know these places, just more likely as Montreal, Sydney and Wellington.

The names given to the places where we live frequently come loaded with historical, political and cultural baggage. Those who wield the power often do the naming and older names that may have stood for centuries can be legislated out of existence with the sweep of a pen.

But in one former outpost of the British empire, a small step was taken recently to remind everyone that indigenous languages – and the people who spoke them – were there first.

Last month, Australia Post announced that it would begin to deliver items addressed in the country's Aboriginal languages. It was a victory for Aboriginal activist Rachael McPhail who fought for the recognition of languages spoken in Australia for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.

“Australia has an amazing history that spans back at least 60,000 years and can be celebrated by all Australians,” she said. “Every area in this country had an original place name, prior to being given its colonial town/city name, and I believe that it’s important to acknowledge this.”

The fight for indigenous language rights – through education, the granting of official status and more symbolic gestures such as altering place names – takes place where history, nationalism and colonialism intersect.

For Prof Stephen May, a languages policy expert with the University of Auckland, a starting point is to acknowledge that different languages can co-exist in one political space.

"The key principle needed for states to acknowledge or accommodate minority or indigenous languages is that of linguistic pluralism," he tells The National. "This requires, in turn, rethinking the principle of linguistic homogeneity, which still underpins most nation-states' language policies."

This policy, Prof May says, has its roots in the development of modern nationalism from the French Revolution onwards.

“The consequence of this has been the marginalisation or banishment of other languages [including indigenous or minority ones] spoken historically in these territories,” he says.

“This basic pattern of suppressing other language varieties, and promoting a [usually] single national language has since been adopted as the norm.

“Both have usually been achieved via education – with the national language used as the language of education – requiring or forcing other language speakers to learn the dominant language. The result of this, over time, is language shift and loss of their first languages.”

Attempts to recognise, protect and promote indigenous languages seem to have had varying levels of success. In Australia – once one of the world’s most linguistically diverse territories – recognition of older languages is on the rise. In 2018, Queensland restored Mount Jim Crow and Mount Wheeler’s Aboriginal names: Baga and Gai-i.

But at the same time, only a fraction of the country's surviving Aboriginal languages are being spoken by children – often a barometer of a language's chances of survival.

Does embracing a country’s older place names carry anything more than symbolic value? For Prof May such steps are only part of a bigger picture.

“Symbolic representation is a start but only that. The key for a minority or indigenous language is for it to be recognised and used publicly as a language of civil society. This includes the media, education, and where possible, the civil service.”

“Welsh is a clear example here where, since [political] devolution in 1999, it has once again [alongside English] become a language of everyday use and a public language, used widely in civic administration, education and the media.”

In Prof May’s native New Zealand, the Maori language went from being excluded from schools for more than 100 years to acquiring official status in 1987. Maori is now on the country’s passports, Maori place names are recognised by the postal service and the language can be used in courts.

In the Mena region, there have been some moves towards pluralism. In 2016, Algerian MPs voted to give the Amazigh (or Berber) languages official status, building on a 2002 decision to allow the languages to be taught in schools. Morocco’s 2011 constitution made Amazigh an official language alongside Arabic – in 2012, singer and poet Fatima Tabaamrant became the first MP to use the language in parliament.

Elsewhere in the region, however, minority languages have fallen foul of shifting borders, state building and nationalism. Turkey, for example, has a notably fraught relationship with its most widely spoken minority language: Kurdish.

Prof May says the principle of linguistic homogeneity can lead some countries to regard minority languages – and those who speak them – as a threat to the state.

“Indeed, in much social and political discourse, the idea of the maintenance of minority languages, and associated minority language rights, is [still] somehow attributed as disloyalty to the state,” he says.

The irony in Turkey’s case is that the republic’s predecessor – the Ottoman Empire – was a multilingual enterprise. Old photographs of Istanbul show shop fronts in Turkish (written in Arabic script), Greek, Armenian and French.

That linguistic diversity seems to be shrinking. Unesco estimates that 6,000 of the world's languages are under threat and says that half of these could be gone by the end of the century. Although recognition is an important stepping stone for a language's survival, support for its public use and respect for its speakers are vital for its viability.

Irish writer Brian Friel's 1980 play Translations depicts the humdrum work of changing indigenous place names. Two British army cartographers survey north-western Ireland in the 19th century, diligently translating or anglicising the local landscape. Cnoc Ban, for example, becomes either "Fair Hill" or "Knockban" – a meaningless word but something easier for the powers that be to pronounce.

Friel’s play and Ms McPhail’s postal campaign reveal that language is more than communication. And although changing street signs or postal addresses can’t make up for historic injustices, comprehending that language taps into powerful currents of identity and meaning should be easy – no translation required.

Declan McVeigh is a sub-editor for The National

Declan McVeigh

Working in Belfast, London, Athens, Istanbul and the Gulf, Declan specialises in foreign affairs and security stories, but also writes for The National about music, sport, travel and culture. Originally from Northern Ireland, Declan has been a journalist for nearly 20 years.