48. The International Year of Indigenous Languages: a call for linguistic diversity

This post is also available in: Catalan

Joan A. Argenter
UNESCO Chair on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
Institut d’Estudis Catalans


When I used to teach courses on the introduction to linguistics, I liked to start by talking about the two most impressive phenomena of language, which are its universality and its extreme diversity. These are facts, not theories, so they are less questionable, and it was also a good way of talking about what we would be tackling. By universality of language we understand that all peoples possess a system of communication of the kind we call natural language. This system is always complete in terms of its internal structure and is suitable, in terms of its function, for meeting the expressive needs of the people who speak that particular language.

The universality of language is rooted in human nature as a whole – it is a feature of the human species – and diversity is a consequence, structurally speaking, of the fact that there is no necessary link between sound and meaning, between the words of languages and the reality they describe – which is why the Catalan word taula and the Spanish word mesa, ‘table’, can refer to the same object – and functionally speaking, of the different evolution of human cultures, of the public dimension of language and of its ability to adapt to specific environments. Universality implies that there are no cognitive differences between human beings based on the grammar of their language. There are differences that can be attributed to greater or lesser cultural development, whatever the criteria used for measuring, at a particular moment in history, but not to grammar. In this sense, I am more inclined to think that every language belongs to the same single species and I do not share the view of those who currently identify language diversity and the diversity of natural species in the endangered languages discourse. This is not just because of its radical unity, but also because the naturalist metaphor can lead to the belief that no role is played in the fate of languages by relations of power between human groups, even though predation also exists between natural species.

It is also plausible to suggest –at least, as much arguable or more than arguable– that various types of languages could play some part in guiding how their speakers experience reality, that is, their knowledge of the social world they are part of and the natural environment in which they live. It is appropriate to go back to this when debating language diversity. All in all, this diversity creates, in the strict sense, the uniqueness of our language, to use the case closest to each person. Our language –whether it is Catalan, Basque or any other– is what it is because for many others it is not their language, it is another language. The singularity of our language and of any other language comes from the plurality of languages out there.

However, the “formal equality” of languages is not accompanied by a “functional equality” that goes beyond “covering the expressive needs of speakers at a point in history”, so in the end, they do their job. But, not all languages can be written, nor are all languages taught at school, neither are they teaching vehicles, official languages or languages for international communication, nor are they sacred languages nor is their continuity guaranteed.

Respect for diversity is a question of rights and of ecology –and therefore of coexistence and survival– as well as of respect for the human beings with whom the language is not shared. Human beings with a historic, cultural and sociolinguistic trajectory, with emotional bonds and with expectations for the future. Building a “common sense” on denial of the rationality of these bonds and these expectations, simply because they are not shared, is a way of naturalising and hiding the interests and privileges that are inherent in those who hold this “common sense”.

Diversity is also important because, among other things, it allows us to face a problem from more than one perspective and perhaps finding more than one solution.

Let us focus now on what the UN calls indigenous languages and on the peoples who speak them, which, after all, is the majority of peoples and languages across the world. Many of these languages are at risk of extinction and this is one of the reasons for holding an International Year. Often the speakers of these languages are associated with poverty; their territory is the target of abusive exploitation of resources and of pillage by others, sometimes by the very people governing their institutions, those who should be protecting them as citizens who, in the end, are part of a state. A metonymic shining example of this is Bolsonaro and the Amazon rainforest. However, here and there, these peoples are showing signs of a struggle for dignity.

We need to ask ourselves: What is lost when a language is lost?

For linguistics and linguists, the answer is clear: When a language disappears without a trace this conditions the development of both historical-comparative linguistics and theoretical linguistics. I cannot go into technicalities here. In brief: it could be the case that if linguists had been able to analyse that language when a protolanguage was rebuilt or when formulating the general necessary principles or human language, the scientific conclusions drawn would have been diferent to those held now without that information. We could say that the secret of one language is often found in another language. And if the latter disappears without a trace it can take with it information that is lost for ever. This is not a trivial issue, but, as human beings, we are interested in knowing what speakers lose rather than what linguistics loses.

It has been said that “the person who loses their language loses their identity”, in fact it has been said so often, it sounds like a slogan. It is true that every social reality is dynamic and, in a sense, every language is also a social reality. All languages evolve, but internal evolution is one thing and supersession is quite another. There is a difference between linguistic and social dynamics. Language shift, frequently resulting in the extinction of the shifting language, is a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout history. However, this traditionally happened at local level: In many places European state languages have replaced other “minor” languages that were either spoken there or spoken in the overseas colonies. But major indigenous languages have also replaced other minor indigenous languages, with no intervention by state-run structures. Examples of this are Quechua (in South America), a widely spoken language in the Pre-Colombian era, and Wolof (Senegal). Expansion was sometimes helped by colonisers, who promoted one of the indigenous languages concurrently. Good examples of this are Swahili (East Africa) and Guarani (South America). The problem today is that language shift is happening globally and the world linguistic diversity is under serious threat. Language shift involves a loss of speakers, domains, vocabulary and structure, ways of speaking, personal names and place names that forge individual and collective identities. The recessive language takes on an increasing number of creations from the dominant language and, little by little, fewer things can be said in the recessive language, while the dominant language becomes needed more and more to say things. The recessive language stops being used on formal and public occasions, it becomes confined to the neighbourhood and people’s homes, until the dominant language also enters the home and the recessive language is abandoned and not passed down to the next generation. The fact is, however, that these losses do not affect all peoples in the same way. There are communities out there in the world for whom there is no link between language and cultural identity or where a language is not seen as a “blood legacy”. There are also peoples who have shifted their distinctive identity from language to another cultural characteristic (or characteristics), like religion in the case of the Irish, ethnicity, land and ties with traditional institutions in the Basque case, and the vindication of genocide in the Armenian diaspora. Neither Irish nor Basque nor Armenian have completely disappeared, in fact, they have developed, more or less successfully, linguistic revitalisation processes. In any case, speakers had already selected the values that would enable them to continue “being themselves” from the resources in a cultural and ideological repertoire.

It has also been said that when a language –or a final word– vanishes, a whole world vanishes with it. This rallying cry tries to highlight how a language is something more than a means of communication. Every language is a vehicle for a particular way of encoding social relationships, the notion of self, a set of classifications of the social world and the natural world, a particular knowledge of this medium, as well as being a vehicle for certain locally relevant social practices. The loss of a language involves the loss of a particular social order, of cultural and pragmatic knowledge of the world around. And the indigenous languages can provide many examples of this.

It is illustrative to compare the different ways in which languages express spatial location and direction as well as time relations. Conceptually, this is because for Kant – for the sake of argument – space and time were an initial requirement for knowledge: space and time were not learnt but rather a prior condition for all learning. According to this, the extent to which language is the expression of thought, and because of the unity of human nature, it might be expected that there would be no differences in the expression of those relationships in the languages of the world. And yet, there are.

Indeed, languages make use of distinct reference frames to express localization and directional orientation. These frames are defined by intrinsic, relative or absolute systems of coordinates. Let us consider the answer to WHERE IS IT? in the horizontal plane. Catalan, like many other European languages, makes use of a system of relative coordinates: spatial relations are defined according to the self, the body axis, the position and the orientation of the person speaking. Thus, we situate objects on our right or on our left, in front of us or behind us, according to our orientation: If we turn 180 degrees, what was on our left is now on our right, and what was in front of us is now behind us: “The ticket window is entering on the right” (when leaving, it is on the left), “The knife is on the right and the fork is on the left” (for the dinner guest who sits in front, the same knife is on the left and the same fork is on the right). We also partly make use of intrinsic coordinates when we situate an object in relation to another, without reference to any of the conversation partners and without implying an observe’s point of view: “The piano stool is in front the piano”, “Gardunya square is behind La Boqueria”, “The prow is the front part of a boat”, “The ball went into the left upper corner” (the speaker may have the left upper corner on the right, but he construes it as fixed part of the goal) . Needless to say, there are ambiguous cases: “The bookrest is on the left of the altar (from my/your point of view/the altar’s left side). Given the weight of the speaker as a point of reference, we could name these languages (i.e. those making use of relative coordinates complemented by intrinsic coordiantes) “egocentric languages”.

However, other languages, like many of the first Australian languages, have referential frameworks with absolute spatial coordinates based on the points of the compass: north is always north and south is always south, etc. So, the speaker verbally situates objects to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west, and if they turn 180 degrees they still place them in the north, south, east or west, and this is expressed in the grammar of the language and in discourse. We call these geocentric.

There are still some languages that use a system of absolute coordinates, like the previous examples, but rather than being guided by compass points they use the features around them. So, Maya languages in Central America express location and direction according to the slope of the mountain: “uphill”, “downhill”. The objects are up the mountain or down the mountain, but not in our relative sense, compared to the speaker’s position but in absolute terms: what is uphill the mountain is always uphill the mountain. When speakers of these languages are away from their habitual surroundings, they continue to situate objects uphill or downhill, even when they are on flat terrain. Siberian languages express direction with respect to a river (“upriver”, “downriver”) and the languages of people living on an island, say the Pacific, can similarly express direction pointing to the land or the sea (“inland”, “seawards”). I call them ecocentric languages because the absolute coordinates consist of features in the surroundings where the speakers live.

It is worth noting that the expression of location or direction in these languages not only works for long distances (like when we refer to the north or to some other compass point), it is valid for short distances too: “the bottle is on the table, east of the glass” or “the bottle is on the table, downhill from the glass”. In these languages the expression of the compass points or of features in the surrounding area is grammaticalised, just as the expression of singular or plural is for us: we cannot refer to objects without indicating if there is one or more than one. It is a compulsory grammatical category. The notion of north/south, uphill/downhill, etc. is incorporated into words that can be either nominal or verbal, like the distinction between singular and plural in Catalan or English.

This typology of reference frames is a simplification. The question is that not all languages make use of all three systems. There are languages that use almost exclusively intrinsic coordinates while others use almost exclusively absolute coordinates. Many languages combine all three or only two systems. Indeed, the only combination that seems to be excluded is relative without intrinsic coordinates.

In the end, everything to do with languages is highly permeable and all grammars have somewhat fuzzy edges, so an egocentric language can also have non-egocentric nooks and crannies – we have seen up the case of intrinsic coordinates. However, one thing is compulsory grammatical categories and another is the ability to express the same relations with the expressive means provided by every language. People from Barcelona, whether they were born or settled there, sometimes use an ecocentric system of coordinates to express location or orientation, which has nothing to do with the language they speak, neither is it a grammatical feature. Barcelona lies between two rivers, the Besós and the Llobregat, and between mountains, the Collserola range, and sea, the Mediterranean. One way of identifying the place where we want to meet a friend might be: “Let’s meet in Provença street on the corner of Passeig de Gràcia, on the sea and the river Besós side”. We would come face to face with each other in front of Gaudi’s la Pedrera. One more example, F.C. Barcelona’s supporters all know that “the southern goal” and “the northern goal” are neither a goal at all nor change the score, but they know whether their seat in the Camp Nou is closer to the one or the other.

If at some point in history all geocentric languages and all ecocentric languages had disappeared without leaving any documented trace, today’s linguist might feel prompted to devise the hypothesis that the system of relative coordinates (on the right/left, in front/behind, on/under, etc.) is a linguistic universal –and therefore a necessary feature in the cognitive system of the human brain that we call language– when in actual fact it would be an accident of history.


*This text was produced from lectures given to mark the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Sapir, Edward, Language: An introduction to the study of speech, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921.

Sapir, Edward (1924) “The grammarian and his language”. In The selected Writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture and personality, ed. David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California, 1949, 150-159.

Levinson, Stephen, Space in language and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.