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Wisdom From the Past, Voices for the Future: The Importance of Indigenous Languages

December 02, 2012 | By Alan Pierce

Consider this well known thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? For the indigenous Amazonian Pirahã community the answer might be: if there is no one to see it, there is no forest and there is no tree.

In the Pirahã language, reality is described based solely on moment-to-moment experience. A person who turns a corner or vanishes into the forest, is said to have “gone from experience.” Light from a flickering flame goes “in and out of experience.” This is one example that demonstrates how a language helps distinctly define a culture and a unique relationship with the world.

What's in a Language?

In Bolivia, there is more linguistic diversity than the whole continent of Europe combined. Similar to biodiversity, which is essential for a healthy global ecology, language diversity is a vital aspect of a thriving human community. Embedded in the structure of language itself is a way of perceiving and describing the world, and the Pirahã are an excellent example of this.

Another unconventional example of language structure and thought can be found in the language of the indigenous Yupno community of Papua New Guinea. The Yupno indicate time as an aspect of topography where the past is downhill, towards the mouth of the local river, and the future uphill, towards the river’s source.

Both these examples demonstrate how language itself is a lens through which we perceive the world. Indigenous languages not only reveal how even the most basic concepts can be approached in fundamentally different ways by indigenous communities, but also provide meaning and context through which their entire cultures are based.

Exploring the Indigenous Worldview

Indigenous languages remind us that our basic worldviews, even concepts like "yesterday" and "tomorrow," can be incredibly diverse. They offer an opportunity and a challenge to admire, accept and explore the amazing breadth and depth of the human experience.

As modern linguists further explore the indigenous language landscape they reveal new possibilities and expose inherent limitations that are present in all language structures. With different language structure comes novel ways of thinking, and with novel ways of thinking, unique pathways towards understanding and living, and ultimately new opportunities to learn from one another.

Voicing Visions For The Future

At The Pachamama Alliance we are committed to preserving indigenous cultures, including the language which helps define and describe those cultures. We also remain dedicated to educating and inspiring the modern world to celebrate and engage human diversity in all its forms, empowering the entire human community to have their unique voices heard and respected.

In one of the most powerful moments of our 2012 Annual Luncheon, indigenous leaders took to the stage (see photo above) and voiced an urgent call in their own indigenous languages for the protection of the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.

From that stage, the sounds of their centuries-old languages resonated across the room and across the world on our live stream. Through the voice of their ancestors they spoke to those involved in the current oil crisis, and they spoke for future generations who must also be stewards of the Earth.

Each individual culture that makes up the larger human family must have the opportunity to voice its unique cultural vision for their own community and for the world because ultimately the path towards a socially just, environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling future has to be heard and lived before it is seen.

Further Reading

  • Discover how globalization is affecting the indigenous voice, and the innovative projects being undertaken to preserve these voices.
  • Visit our 2012 Annual Luncheon page and watch video clips of the event, including the speeches by the indigenous leaders
  • Learn how our sister organization Fundación Pachamama empowers the indigenous Achuar community to learn English as a way to help preserve their culture.
  • Mother Nature speaks to us in many ways too, explore the language of Nature in one of our previous blog posts.
  • Can food also be a kind of language? Yes! This TED Talk explains how.

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