There’s a Dark Political History to Language That Strips People of Their Dignity

Residents of Baltimore, Maryland, seen here, were the object of dehumanizing language from President Trump.  REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Residents of Baltimore, Maryland, seen here, were the object of dehumanizing language from President Trump. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Dehumanizing language often precedes genocide.

One tragic example: Extreme dehumanizing language was a strong contributor to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. As I have written, the Hutu majority used a popular radio station to continually refer to Tutsi tribal members, a minority in Rwanda, as “cockroaches.”

As support for this characterization grew among Hutus, it essentially stripped away any moral obligation to see Tutsis as fellow humans. They were just vermin that needed to be eradicated.

Students of 20th century history will also recognize this pattern of dehumanizing language in the lead-up to the genocide committed by the Turks against Armenians, where Armenians were “dangerous microbes.” During the the Holocaust, Germans described Jews as “Untermenschen,” or subhumans.

On July 27, President Trump tweeted that Baltimore was a “"disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and “No human being would want to live there.”

The Baltimore Sun charged back with an editorial headlined “Better to have a few rats than to be one.”

I’m a scholar of conflict management. This back-and-forth got me reflecting on how extreme, dehumanizing exchanges like this can escalate into destructive outcomes.

President Donald Trump.  AP/Carolyn Kaster

President Donald Trump. AP/Carolyn Kaster

Insults and conflict

The goal of my research in hostage negotiation and divorce mediation is to help police negotiators and court mediators shift out of a charged situation into problem solving.

Generally, when people respect one another they have a fairly easy time problem solving. But when one person challenges the other’s identity with personal insults, both parties forget about the problem-solving task and focus only on what I call “identity restoration,” which means trying to save face and restore personal dignity.

This shift pushes them into a charged conflict that can quickly escalate.

After all, many studies over the last several decades have reinforced the finding that a human being’s group identity is their most prized possession. People craft their identities to fit into a core group – as a member of a family, a profession or a tribe, for example – that is vital to our social standing. In some cases, such as adopting the identity of a U.S. Marine, for example, group belonging may be necessary to personal survival.

Most of the time identity challenges are fairly minor and easily ignored so that problem solving doesn’t get off track too quickly. A boss might say at a meeting, “Weren’t you supposed to have that report ready today?” A quick defense of one’s identity as a competent professional for that company and the matter is dropped and we’re back to work.

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Conflict and Escalation

When the challenges are more severe, the identity defense becomes fiercer. Voices get raised, emotions swell and people become locked in a spiraling conflict, which is characterized by a sustained attack-and-defend cycle.

Hostage negotiators and divorce mediators are trained to shift dialogue away from identity threats and into problem solving by isolating divisive issues and coming up with specific proposals to address them.

Unfortunately, if there are no controls over language escalation, and parties start making references that can be interpreted in extreme, dehumanizing terms, they may come to believe that the only way to restore their identities is by physical domination.

Words no longer work. When parties cross over this very thin line, they fall into an identity trap with little hope of escape until the violence ends.

While I don’t expect the conflict between the president and Baltimore to escalate into actual violence, these kinds of exchanges can make it more acceptable for followers to use this kind of language.

When the President encourages crowds to chant, “Lock her up,” and “Send her back” at rallies, or describes a city as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” would want to live, it sets a climate in which using lethal, dehumanizing language seems normal. That is simply dangerous.

WILLIAM A. DONOHUE is a distinguished Professor of Communication at Michigan State University.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHING ON THE CONVERSATION.

PERU: Saving an Ancient Language Through Pop Music

Renata Flores is a 16-year-old singer from Peru who is using her voice to save an ancient Incan language. Though Quechua is the second-most spoken language in Peru, native speakers have suffered from discrimination and social stigma for generations, and today, many young people aren’t learning the language at all. But with her powerful vocals to covers of pop songs by Michael Jackson and Alicia Keys in her native tongue, Flores is sparking a renewed celebration of Quechuan language and culture.

Renaissance on the Bayou: The Revival of a Lost Language

Members of the Chitimacha language team (from left to right) Sam Boutte, Kim Walden and Rachel Vilcan use the new language software for the first time. Author provided

Members of the Chitimacha language team (from left to right) Sam Boutte, Kim Walden and Rachel Vilcan use the new language software for the first time. Author provided

In the summer of 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression, a 21-year-old linguist named Morris Swadesh set out for Louisiana to record the area’s Native American languages, which were disappearing rapidly.

Morris and his peers were in a race against time to document them, and in the small town of Charenton on the Bayou Teche, he encountered Benjamin Paul and Delphine Ducloux, members of a small tribe called Chitimacha – and the last two speakers of their language.

But today, if you visited the Chitimacha reservation, you’d never know that their language went unspoken for half a century.

Over the past several decades, many Native American tribes have participated in what has become a robust language revitalization movement. As their populations of fluent speakers dwindle and age, tribes want to ensure that their heritage languages are passed on to the next generation – before it’s too late.

But because the Chitimacha tribe had no living speakers for a number of decades, it made the challenge that much greater. In the end, the story of the language’s decline, loss and rebirth is a remarkable example of cultural survival.

Why document a language?

Unlike some other cultural legacies, languages leave no trace in the archaeological record. There’s often no trace in the written record, either.

Only a small portion of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages are well-documented in places like dictionaries and grammar books. Those that are least well-documented are the most endangered.

Many dead or dying languages contain exotic features of verbal and written communication. Chitimacha, for example, doesn’t use a word “be” in phrases like “she is reading.” Instead, speakers must use a verb of position, such as “she sits reading” or “she stands reading.” These are things that challenge linguists’ understanding of how language works.

By working with Ben and Delphine, Morris was trying to capture a small piece of that linguistic diversity before it vanished.

One day, with Morris sitting on Ben’s porch dutifully scribbling down his every word in a composition notebook, Ben finished a story (a riveting tale of how the Chitimacha first acquired fire by stealing it from a mythical old blind man in the west). He then went on to tell Morris:

There were very many stories about the west. I believe I am doing well. I have not forgotten everything yet. When I die, you will not hear that sort of thing again. I am the only one here who knows the stories.

Ben passed away three years later, and Delphine not long thereafter. After their deaths, it seemed the Chitimacha language was doomed to silence.

Why do languages die?

How does a language come to have only two speakers? Why have so many Native American languages become endangered? The causes are manifold, but there are two main ones: sharp reductions in the population of the community that speaks the language, and interruptions in the traditional means of transferring the language from one generation to the next.

In the past, the former caused the most damage. Native American peoples were decimated by European diseases and subject to outright warfare.

A portrait of two Chitimacha by French-born painter François Bernard (1870).  Wikimedia Commons

A portrait of two Chitimacha by French-born painter François Bernard (1870). Wikimedia Commons

Prior to European contact, the Chitimacha were lords of the bayou, with a territory stretching from Vermillion Bay in the west to present-day New Orleans in the east. They were expert canoe-makers and wielded extensive knowledge of the region’s labyrinthian network of waterways.

But by the time the French arrived in present-day Louisiana in 1699, the tribe’s numbers had dwindled to around 4,000, their communities gutted by European diseases that spread faster than the Europeans themselves.

After a protracted war with the French, they retreated deep into the bayou, where the their reservation at Charenton sits today. The 1910 census recorded just 69 people living there.

Only later did the second cause of language decline occur, when children on the reservation were sent to the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which interrupted the transmission of the language to the next generation.

Ben and Delphine, born in the latter half of the 1800s, were part of the last generation to learn the language at home. Eventually their parents and many of their peers passed away, leaving them as the last two speakers of the language.

Renaissance on the bayou

Ben probably never imagined that the efforts of him and Delphine would spark the tribe’s linguistic renaissance, awakening their language from 60 years of silence.

Delphine Ducloux was one of the two last speakers of the Chitimacha language, prior to its revival.  State Library of Louisiana

Delphine Ducloux was one of the two last speakers of the Chitimacha language, prior to its revival. State Library of Louisiana

In the early 1990s, cultural director for the tribe Kim Walden received a call from the American Philosophical Society Library informing her that they had all of Morris’ notebooks, and even his drafts for a grammar manual and dictionary, which totaled hundreds of pages in all. Thus began the herculean effort to revive the language.

The tribe put together a small-but-dedicated team of language experts, who set out to learn their language as quickly as possible. They began to produce storybooks based on Ben and Delphine’s stories, and word lists from the dictionary manuscript.

In 2008, the tribe partnered with the software company Rosetta Stone on a two-year project to create computer software for learning the language, which today every registered tribal member has a copy of. This is where I came in, serving as editor and linguist consultant for the project, a monumental collaborative effort involving thousands of hours of translating, editing, recording and photographing. We’re now hard at work finishing a complete dictionary and learner’s reference grammar for the language.

Today, if you stroll through the reservation’s school, you’ll hear kids speaking Chitimacha in language classes, or using it with their friends in the hall. At home they practice with the Chitimacha version of Rosetta Stone, and this past year the tribe even launched a preschool immersion program.

The kids even make up slang that baffles adult ears, a sure sign that the language is doing well – and hopefully will continue to thrive, into the next generation and beyond.

Author Danny Hieber presents the story of the Chitimacha language at the University of California’s Grad Slam competition.

DANIEL W. HIEBER is a PhD Candidate in Linguistics at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

How the Loss of Native American Languages Affects our Understanding of the Natural World

Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation.  Aaron Hawkins/Flickr.com ,  CC BY-ND

Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation. Aaron Hawkins/Flickr.comCC BY-ND

Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act.

American policies, particularly in the six decades between the 1870s and 1930s, suppressed Native American languages and culture. It was only after years of activism by indigenous leaders that the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, which allowed for the preservation and protection of indigenous languages. Nonetheless, many Native American languages have been on the verge of extinction for the past many years.

Languages carry deep cultural knowledge and insights. So, what does the loss of these languages mean in terms of our understanding of the world.

Environmental knowledge

Embedded in indigenous languages, in particular, is knowledge about ecosystems, conservation methods, plant life, animal behavior and many other aspects of the natural world.

The shell necklace of Queen Liliʻuokalani.  David Eickhoff/Flickr.com ,  CC BY

The shell necklace of Queen Liliʻuokalani. David Eickhoff/Flickr.comCC BY

In Hawaiian traditions and belief systems,for example, the tree snails were connected to “the realm of the gods.” Hawaiian royalty revered them, which protected them from overharvesting.

The Bishop Museum in Honolulu holds a shell necklace, or lei, of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. It is made from tree snail shells, which signifies the high rank of female royalty. Wearing a shell was believed to provide “mana,” or spiritual power and a way to understand ancestral knowledge.

Many of these snails are now extinct and those remaining are threatened with extinction. Scientists are working with Hawaiian language experts to learn about the belief systems that once helped protect them and their habitats.

A tool for doctors

Words in indigenous languages can have cultural meanings, that can be lost during translation. Understanding the subtle differences can often shift one’s perspective about how indigenous people thought about the natural world.

For example, as an indigenous scholar of the environment, I led a team some years ago of language experts, elders and scholars from Montana and Alberta, Canada, to create a list of Blackfeet words, called a lexicon, of museum objects. The elders I worked with noted that the English word “herb,” which was used to describe most plant specimens within museums, did not have the same meaning in Blackfeet.

In English, the word “herb” can have numerous meanings, including a seasoning for food. The closest English word to herb in Blackfeet is “aapíínima’tsis.” The elders explained this word means “a tool that doctors use.”

The hope is that the lexicon and audio files recorded in the Blackfeet language that our research helped create, might assist future scholars access the embedded meanings in languages.

Blackfeet Word of the Day. Blackfeet History, Language and Environmental Knowledge.

Saving vanishing languages

Many Native American communities in the United States are now working to save these cultural insights and revitalize their languages.

In Wisconsin, an Ojibwe language school called “Waadookodaading,”translated literally as “a place where people help each other,” immerses its students in the environmental knowledge embedded in the language.

The Ojibwe believe that theirs is a language of action. And the best way for children to learn is by doing and observing the natural world. Each spring, for example, the students go into the woods to gather maple sap from trees, which is processed into maple syrup and sugar. These students learn about indigenous knowledge of plants, their habitats and uses.

Language loss can be considered as extreme as the extinction of a plant or an animal. Once a language is gone, the traditional knowledge it carries also gets erased from society.

Efforts are now underway worldwide to remind people of this reality. The United Nations has designated 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages” in order to raise awareness of indigenous languages as holders of “complex systems of knowledge” and encourage nation states to work toward their revitalization.

The loss of indigenous languages is not Alaska’s concern alone. It affects all of us.

ROSALYN R. LAPIER is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at The University of Montana.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

The Origins of Pama-Nyungan, Australia’s Largest Family of Aboriginal Languages

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The approximately 400 languages of Aboriginal Australia can be grouped into 27 different families. To put that diversity in context, Europe has just four language families, Indo-European, Basque, Finno-Ugric and Semitic, with Indo-European encompassing such languages as English, Spanish, Russian and Hindi.

Australia’s largest language family is Pama-Nyungan. Before 1788 it covered 90% of the country and comprised about 300 languages. The territories on which Canberra (Ngunnawal), Perth (Noongar), Sydney (Daruk, Iyora), Brisbane (Turubal) and Melbourne (Woiwurrung) are built were all once owned by speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages.

All the languages from the Torres Strait to Bunbury, from the Pilbara to the Grampians, are descended from a single ancestor language that spread across the continent to all but the Kimberley and the Top End.

Where this language came from, how old it is, and how it spread, has been something of a puzzle. Our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests the family arose just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. Our findings suggest this language family spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate.

Aboriginal Australia is often described as “the world’s oldest living culture”, and public discussion often falsely assumes that this means unchanging. Our research adds further evidence to Australia pre-1788 being a dynamic place, where people moved and adapted to a changing land.

Map of Pama-Nyungan languages, coloured by their main groupings. Compiled by Claire Bowern using data from National Science Foundation grant BCS-0844550.

Map of Pama-Nyungan languages, coloured by their main groupings. Compiled by Claire Bowern using data from National Science Foundation grant BCS-0844550.

Tracing Pama-Nyungan

We used data from changes in several hundred words in different languages from the Pama-Nyungan family to build up a tree of languages, using a computer model adapted from those used originally to trace virus outbreaks.

Different related words for ‘fire’ in certain Pama-Nyungan languages. Green dots show languages with a word for ‘fire’ related to *warlu; white has *puri; red has *wiyn; blue has *maka, and purple *karla. Chirila files (http://chirila.yale.edu) and google earth for base image.

Different related words for ‘fire’ in certain Pama-Nyungan languages. Green dots show languages with a word for ‘fire’ related to *warlu; white has *puri; red has *wiyn; blue has *maka, and purple *karla. Chirila files (http://chirila.yale.edu) and google earth for base image.

Because our models make estimates of the time that it takes for words to change, as well as how words in Pama-Nyungan languages are related to one another, we can use those changes to estimate the age of the family.

We found clear support for the origin of Pama-Nyungan just under 6,000 years ago in an area around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown. We found no support for the theories that Pama-Nyungan spread earlier.

The timing of this expansion is consistent with a theory that increasingly unstable conditions caused groups of people to fragment and spread. But correlation is not causation: just because two patterns appear related, it does not mean that one caused the other.

In this case, however, we have other evidence that access to ecological resources has shaped how people migrated. We found that, in our model, groups of people moved more slowly near the coast and major waterways, and faster across deserts. This implies that populations increase where food and water are plentiful, and then spread out and fissure when resources are harder to obtain.

You can see a simulated expansion here. The spread of Pama-Nyungan languages mirrored this spread of people.

What languages tell us

Languages today tell us a lot about our past. Because languages change regularly, we can use information in them to work out who groups were talking to in the past, where they lived, who they are related to, and where they’ve moved. We can do this even in the absence of a written record and of archaeological materials.

For places like Australia, the linguistic record, though incomplete, has more even coverage across the continent than the archaeological record does. At European settlement, there were about 300 Pama-Nyungan languages. Because there are at least some records of most of them we are able to work with these to uncover these complex patterns of change.

There are approximately 145 Aboriginal languages with speakers today, including languages from outside the Pama-Nyungan family. Many of these languages, such as Dieri, Ngalia and Mangala, are spoken by only a few people, many of whom are elderly.

Other languages, however, are actively used in their communities and are learned as first languages by young children. These include the Yolŋu languages of Arnhem Land and Arrernte in Central Australia. Yet others (such as Kaurna around Adelaide) are undergoing a renaissance, gaining speakers within their communities.

Nathan B. performing “Yolŋu Land” using English and Yolŋu Matha.

Finally, though not the focus of our study, there are also new languages, such as Kriol spoken across Northern Australia, Palawa Kani in Tasmania, and Gurindji Kriol. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also know English, and most Indigenous Australians are multilingual.

Without records of all these languages, and without ongoing work to support speakers and communities, we aren’t able to do research like this, and Australia loses a vital link to its history. After all, European settlement of Australia is a tiny chunk of the time people have lived on this land.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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CLAIRE BOWERN

Claire Bowern is Professor of Linguistics at Yale University. Her 2004 PhD is from Harvard University and examined the historical morphology of complex verb constructions in a family of non-Pama-Nyungan (Australian) languages. Her research focuses on the Indigenous languages of Australia, and is concerned with language documentation/description and prehistory.