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Language revival expert calls for native tongue title

Tuesday August 28, 2012

Language revival expert calls for native tongue title

A world-renowned expert on language revival says the loss of language is more damaging than the loss of land for indigenous peoples, and governments are likely to come under increasing pressure to compensate indigenous peoples for this loss too.

Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann is Chair of Linguistics and Endangered Languages at the University of Adelaide, and an authority on the Hebrew revival movement, which turned an historical sacred language into the national language of Israel with millions of native speakers, including Professor Zuckermann himself.

He’ll be giving a free public lecture at the University of Waikato next month [Monday 10 September], where he’ll discuss the importance of revitalising languages and the establishment of a new universal discipline – revival linguistics.

“There’s a huge underestimation of the role of language,” he says. “Language reclamation is becoming increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty and improve their well-being.”

Oceania, he says, ought to be the world leader in the field of revival linguistics.

Professor Zuckermann is currently working with the Barngarla Aboriginal people of South Australia to restore what he calls “native tongue title” after the tribe suffered linguicide (language killing) and the forcible removal of children.

“Language is the mouth of the land in Aboriginal culture, so it seems appropriate to give it rights too. It’s very much a Western idea to give money for the loss of land but not language, and I predict that in the future there will be compensation for language loss as intangible intellectual property.”

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He says Māori communities are among the very few to have already understood the importance of this, with the submission of claims to the Waitangi Tribunal relating to language loss.

“Māori is a fascinating and multifaceted example,” he says. “There was a period of linguicide, when Māori were forbidden to speak their own language in schools, but there were and still are native speakers.

“Hebrew did not have that – there were no native speakers of Hebrew from the middle of the second century AD through to the late nineteenth century. The Hebrew revival in fact created a hybrid language reflecting not only Hebrew but also the Yiddish mother tongue of the revivalists as well as other vernaculars.”

But Professor Zuckermann warns against complacency.

“It’s very easy to check if a language is safe, you just need to look at the percentage of native-speaking children. And on that basis Māori is still unfortunately an endangered language.”

Professor Zuckermann will deliver his lecture “Sleeping Beauties Awake - Towards the Establishment of Revival Linguistics” at 12-1pm on Monday 10 September at the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Waikato.

The lecture is sponsored by Te Pua Wananga ki te Ao (School of Māori and Pacific Development) and Te Kotahi Research Institute at the University of Waikato.
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