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Thursday, May 05, 2016

On Promoting Aboriginal Languages



Not one, but two, good friends have posted on Facebook, to illustrate their approval, this blurb from “ourlanguages.gc.ca.” The Trudeau government has apparently launched an initiative to promote aboriginal languages. Sadly, they say, “these languages are spoken less and less, some are even at risk of disappearing. The federal government has therefore made this matter a priority by providing funding until 2017 for projects that promote Aboriginal languages.”

Let's step back a bit, shall we? What is the actual purpose of language? It is to communicate, right? It follows that a language with very few speakers, and the number of which are declining, is of little and declining use. It is doing people harm to ask them to preserve or to learn it. Mankind would be better off were it to die out. Sorry, but it is true, and people everywhere are voting with their tongues: mankind would be better off if everyone could speak English. In the case of Canadian Indians, preserving instead aboriginal languages is a tool of segregation. It cuts them off from the Canadian mainstream, and it cuts them off from the world mainstream.

Let us remember, too, that not one red cent of this money is going to Indians, who are often poor and perhaps could use it. It goes to wealthy academics and professionals, to fund studies and make “language tools” to put up on the Internet. Which any Indian who already speaks the language does not need.

Granted, this notion of language as only a tool for present-day communication is too simplistic. Some languages also enshrine a mighty literature. A communication with great thinkers of the past the subtleties of which cannot adequately be conveyed in translation. This is the case for philosophy, often, or for poetry, in which the beauty of the language is part of the allure. For this reason, people still often want to study ancient Greek, Hebrew, Latin. For this reason, languages other than English—let's give a shout-out to French here—are still viable.

But Canadian Indian languages were and are entirely oral. They have no literature. Long-ago Indians might have had great thoughts or spoken beautiful words, but no great thoughts or beautiful words are preserved, unless in French or English records.

So there is no point. It is a waste of our taxpayer money.

Or worse than a waste. For some language is also created and used simply to keep others out of the group—those, that is, who do not speak it. This is a use of language for evil. This is commonly the case for street slang, or for academic or professional jargon. This is literally the case for the word “shibboleth.” You don't say it right, you are disadvantaged.

As a matter of fact, this is the best way to acccount for the staggering diversity of languages among Canadian Indians. Differences were exaggerated over time to keep groups separate, promoting anomisity among them, and preventing the exchange of ideas.

Preserving and promoting dying Indian languages in modern Canada would do the same thing. Segregation is a good way to stay poor, misunderstood, and ignorant.

People are worth more than languages.


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