NI 473 - The politics of language loss - June, 2014

NI 473 - June, 2014

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The politics of language loss

A note from the editor

Jo Lateu

Save our speech!

‘I think they might be backward.’

This was the damning verdict of the health visitor on discovering that my twin sister and I, aged two, were resolutely refusing to speak a proper language (ie English), and were instead babbling away in some incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo. My mother knew better. Like endless sets of twins around the world, we had simply come up with our own language, in which we were perfectly fluent and happy, thank you very much. The rest of the family managed to decipher enough to know what we wanted – and given that that was the extent of our two-year-old world, why bother with anything else? When we went to school, we were put into separate classes and inevitably picked up the far inferior language our peers were speaking. And our own twin-speak soon died out.

This, in a microcosm, is what is happening to the vast majority of the 7,000 languages currently spoken around the world, which struggle against political and cultural assimilation, fall out of favour or are beaten into obscurity. Many linguists believe their fate is sealed, and that within two centuries, we’ll all be speaking the same language. But all is not yet lost – as our Big Story this month reveals.

Also in this issue, we highlight a theatre making waves in Afghanistan by encouraging people to act out their trauma. And Lydia James investigates the shocking – and growing – phenomenon of food waste, and offers some ingenious ways to stop our leftovers ending up in landfill.

Jo Lateu for the New Internationalist co-operative.

Keynote article.

Photo: Lorenzo Rossi / Alamy

Talking about a revolution

Jo Lateu explains why the world's minority languages matter for all of us - and why we should be fighting for their survival.

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Under the benign gaze of King Juan Carlos, I am listening to three Galicians speaking animatedly about their language and what it means to them. There is a certain irony in the fact that we are gathered beneath a portrait of the king, at the Spanish Institute on the outer reaches of London’s Portobello Road. For all his benevolent condescension and charming smile, Juan Carlos represents the Spanish state, which, in the eyes of many fighting for Galician rights, is the enemy.

Although Galician...


Family and kinship are an important part of Tlingit art and culture.

Voices under the ice

Nora Marks Dauenhauer was born in 1927 into the Tlingit aboriginal nation of Alaska. A poet, short-story writer and scholar, she has dedicated much of her life to preserving and promoting the Tlingit language.

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Denied a voice: Kurds such as these women, who fled their village when it was attacked by the Turkish army, have long faced linguistic, as well as cultural, oppression.

'They nicknamed me Terrorist'

For decades Kurds in Turkey were banned from using their own language. Do recent government concessions reflect a genuine change of heart? Naila Bozo investigates.

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Languages - THE FACTS

There are between 5,000 and 7,000 languages in use today, but every fortnight one of them goes extinct.

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More than just words, ‘our language is linked to our land,’ say Kaurna Elders.

Marni naa pudni Kaurna yarta-ana (Welcome to Kaurna country)

Half of the 200 indigenous languages spoken in Australia before the British arrived have died and fewer than 20 are being taught to the next generation. But Katrina Power is one of those busy bucking the trend.

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Up and down

Language survival is a rollercoaster ride. The fate of the world’s mother tongues is often dependent on a combination of factors, including grassroots activism, political will and simple chance.

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A Moken child eyes his lunch. The Mergui archipelago, where he lives, is rich in marine biodiversity. With 116 languages, Burma is also a language hotspot.

Of speech and species

Saving languages is good for the environment and for tackling poverty. Suzanne Romaine explains why.

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Gleaners recover tonnes of pumpkins such as these at a farm near Southampton, England.

From bins to bellies

Lydia James uncovers some novel ways to divert food from landfill.

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Many of the stories you hear about abortion in Chile involve women who meet horrible ends. ‘I imagined some little girl dead in a field. The stuff they show on TV is always so harsh and judgmental’

Valeria's story

Anne Hoffman hears about the struggle for reproductive rights in Chile.

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Letter from Bangui: Our trespasses

A hold-up at the airport sets Ruby Diamonde to thinking about the state of siege under which Central Africans have to live.

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Open Window: Excision

Oleksy Kustovsky from Ukraine with ‘Excision’.

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Country profile: Israel

Facts, figures and images from Israel.

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Making Waves: Afghanistan's theatre of the oppressed

Encouraging people to act out their trauma results not just in empathy but in action. Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn has witnessed the transformation first hand.

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Southern Exposure: Azhar A Rahim

Highlighting the work of artists and photographers from the Majority World.

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And finally... Xiaolu Guo

The award-winning novelist and film director tells Graeme Green about growing up in rural China, freedom, censorship and loneliness.

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Film, Book & Music Reviews.

Film reviews

Jimmy’s Hall, directed by Ken Loach; Of Horses and Men, directed and written by Benedikt Erlingsson.

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Young diva Karbasi explores Sephardic roots.

Music reviews

Toumani & Sidiki by Toumani Diabaté and Sidiki Diabaté; La Tsadika by Mor Karbasi.

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Book reviews

I Am China by Xiaolu Guo; Foreign Gods, Inc by Okey Ndibe; The Hunt for the Golden Mole by Richard Girling; The Secret World of Oil by Ken Silverstein.

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Also out there...

Music, film and book also out there.

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