Celebrating Indigenous Voices: Why Do Legends and Narratives Matter?

Countless Indigenous languages around the world are in danger of becoming extinct. What happens when they vanish, taking with them the unique voices and narrative traditions passed down over millennia? At any rate, this loss is not only a tragedy for the affected communities but for all of humanity.

Every society thrives on stories, legends, and myths. The intricate fabric of each culture is reflected in how people relate the lore to each other, what they talk about, and how they make sure the audience is involved. A myth might tell a story about how people came to be the way they are now, where they come from, and what they have to be proud of. A legend may offer a cautionary tale and suggest patterns of behaviour.

The Tariana people of north-west Amazonia have many stories about a man who was fishing and fishing and fishing, catching more fish than he or his family could possibly consume. An evil spirit of the jungle came up to him, in the form of a beautiful woman, and warned him not to be too greedy. The man paid no heed to the warning. Then the spirit whisked him away into the depths of the underwater world, the Tariana equivalent of hell, never to be seen again. Isn’t this a lesson in sustainability and the maintenance of an equilibrium between what one needs and what is good for the environment and for others?

Stories as Cultural Heritage

Across the world, traditional narratives vary in the ways they are presented. A narrative will have a structure and will begin, and end, in a particular way which may tell us what kind of story it is. In many European languages, a folk tale will start with an introductory formula along the lines of once upon a time. Estonian folktales start with the expression Elanud kord…, ‘literally, there is reported to have lived once…’ An ancestral myth in Tariana would open with the time word walikasu ‘at the beginning, back in the old days.’

The formulaic beginnings offer the audience a sneak preview into the genre to be expected. Another formula will conclude a story. A typical ending of a legend or a myth in Manambu, from Papua New Guinea, translates as ‘the story goes back to its base’; for some, it is ‘the story enters an enclosure’ — as if, when told, the story was let out of where it is kept, and when it is finished, it goes back to its resting place. For a real-life narrative, a speaker would just say ‘it is finished.’

Different speech genres have their distinct features. In telling a story in North Khanty, an Ob-Ugric language from the depths of Siberia, a speaker may choose to switch to what is known as ‘historic present.’ This is a way of describing the past as if it is happening now, with the dramatic immediacy of an eye-witness account. A story-teller in Yidiñ, an Indigenous language from North Queensland in Australia, would take on the identity of the main character of a traditional story, and tell it as if they were the protagonist. Speakers of every language will exploit whichever means are available to them, weaving a complex fabric of a narrative. This reflects the unique voice, and the heritage of each group, their diversity, and their unique profile and imprint.

Fading Voices

A major concern of our times is the loss of global linguistic diversity which is now reaching critical proportions. According to the Language Conservancy Newsletter, more than two and a half thousand minority languages are in grave danger — more than half of 5,000 or so languages from across the globe.

Of about 350 Indigenous languages of Amazonia, no more than thirty are still learnt by children. The story repeats itself. Of c. 250 original languages of Australia, about a dozen are being acquired by children as first languages. None of the ninety or so original languages of California are learnt as first languages. Across North America, about 80% of the Indigenous languages are no longer being passed on to children. Larger, national languages — English, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, French, and Indonesian among them — keep accumulating more speakers, at the expense of smaller groups. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer still.

“The loss of linguistic diversity threatens to reduce our knowledge of human history and of the capacity of the human mind.”

In recent times, the decline of biodiversity across the globe has been in the spotlight — the loss of endangered species of animals and plants and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The decline of biodiversity makes our world look bleak and colourless. Linguistic diversity is no different. Its loss threatens to reduce our knowledge of human history and of the capacity of the human mind. The uniform Brave New World, straight out of Aldous Huxley’s immortal novel, beckons.

A sceptic will ask: what is there to worry about? Wouldn’t it be best if all of us spoke just one language? Why should we care about insignificant people speaking insignificant languages, which are bound to melt down under the pressure of advancing progress and civilization? Wouldn’t it be best for them to embrace the rich resources of English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese, rather than sticking to their primitive ways, and tongues? Our sceptic is under a delusion. No language is primitive. Quite the contrary: languages of the tropics — the locus of immense diversity — are dauntingly complex. Every language is a repository of a unique tradition and a reflection of a unique voice. And a symbol of identity — a repository of the tradition and one’s own world-view.

Keeping the Indigenous voices alive in their various forms and formats is vital for the survival of millennia-old traditions and world views. And for maintaining dignity and making the original voices heard. In line with this, the current Australian Government is committed to conducting a referendum which would enshrine within the Constitution of the country the Voice of the First Nations as a representative Indigenous body to parliament. A decade-long international event — UNESCO’s Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032) — is a further testimony to a world-wide commitment to the Indigenous Voice.

Our joint research on legends and narratives in languages of the tropics offers a further step in documentation and preservation of Indigenous voices. Supported by the Jawun Research Centre of Central Queensland University (Australia), under the leadership of Professor Adrian Miller, a proud member of the Dyirbal nation and the Director of the Jawun Centre, our work spans the tapestry of story-telling traditions from across First Nations of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, and remote Siberia. Together with the communities of speakers, we linguists thrive to fight the dangerous trend towards the depletion of the world’s languages, by documenting their treasures, enshrining their voices, and inspiring the communities to value their traditional tongues and endeavour to keep them going.

[Title image by Kateryna Kovarzh/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald

Prof. Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald is a Professorial Research Fellow and Australian Laureate Fellow at the Jawun Research Centre of Central Queensland University Australia. As a linguist, her major focus is on the endangered Arawak languages of South America, the Ndu languages of New Guinea and numerous issues in general linguistics and language typology.

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