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  • Smrithi Adinarayanan

The role of language in cultivating and preserving indigenous knowledge systems

Language is more than just a tool for communication; it is the heart and soul of a culture. For indigenous communities around the world, language plays a profound and irreplaceable role in cultivating and preserving their knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge encompasses a vast array of wisdom, from sustainable land management practices to traditional healing methods, all deeply rooted in centuries of lived experience. ILet’s explore the pivotal role of language in the cultivation and preservation of indigenous knowledge systems, drawing examples from various cultures.

Oral Tradition and Cultural Continuity

Many indigenous knowledge systems have been traditionally passed down through oral tradition. Elders and community members use their native languages to convey not only information but also the stories, beliefs, and values that underpin their knowledge. These languages serve as a living repository of cultural continuity, ensuring that each generation inherits the wisdom of their ancestors.

Example: The Navajo Nation in North America relies on the Navajo (Diné) language to convey intricate knowledge of their environment, medicinal plants, and astronomical wisdom through storytelling and oral traditions.

Specific Terminology and Precision

Indigenous languages often have specialized terminology that reflects the unique understanding of the natural world and the cosmos. These languages allow for precise communication of concepts and practices that may not have direct equivalents in other languages. They enable the conveyance of intricate knowledge that is essential for the well-being and sustainability of indigenous communities.

Example: The Hawaiian language (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi) contains specific terminology related to navigation, agriculture, and traditional healing, ensuring the precise transmission of these practices within Native Hawaiian culture.

Cultural Identity and Community Bonding

Language is intimately tied to cultural identity. It is not just a means of communication; it is a marker of one's cultural heritage. Speaking one's indigenous language fosters a sense of belonging and community among indigenous people, reinforcing their identity and shared values. It is a source of pride and strength.

Example: In New Zealand, the revival of the Māori language (Te Reo Māori) is seen as crucial to preserving Māori culture and knowledge, promoting a sense of identity among the Māori people.

New MāoriScript

Recording and Documentation

Language is a powerful tool for documenting and recording indigenous knowledge. While many indigenous knowledge systems are orally transmitted, written and recorded materials in indigenous languages are invaluable for research, preservation, and future generations. These documents help bridge the gap between oral tradition and modern scholarship.

Legal and Political Recognition

Recognition and protection of indigenous rights often hinge on the acknowledgment of indigenous languages and knowledge systems. Language becomes a powerful tool for advocacy, negotiation, and asserting sovereignty over traditional lands and resources.

Example: Efforts to recognize and protect Aboriginal languages in Australia are intertwined with the broader struggle for land rights and self-determination by Aboriginal communities.

Sanskrit Effect: Neuroscience of Language

Vedic Sanskrit pandits in India undergo extensive training, spanning several years, to meticulously memorize and accurately recite ancient oral texts dating back 3,000 years, which can range from 40,000 to well over 100,000 words. The study aimed to investigate the impact of this intensive verbal memory training on the physical structure of their brains. To accomplish this, participants were recruited from government-sponsored schools in the Delhi region as part of the India-Trento Partnership for Advanced Research (ITPAR). Subsequently, structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was employed at India's National Brain Research Center to examine the brain structures of both the pandits and a control group. The control group was carefully selected to match the pandits in terms of age, gender, handedness, eye-dominance, and multilingual abilities.

The findings obtained through the structural MRI scans yielded remarkable results. It was observed that several brain regions in the pandits exhibited significantly larger sizes compared to those in the control group. Specifically, there was an increase of over 10 percent in the volume of gray matter in both cerebral hemispheres, along with substantial enhancements in cortical thickness. While the precise cellular mechanisms underlying these measurements of gray matter and cortical thickness are still subject to ongoing research, it is consistently noted that such increases in these metrics are associated with improved cognitive function.

Of particular significance concerning verbal memory, it was observed that the pandits' right hippocampus, a critical brain region involved in both short and long-term memory processes, exhibited a greater volume of gray matter compared to the control group in nearly 75 percent of this subcortical structure. The human brain comprises two hippocampi, one on the left and one on the right, both of which are indispensable for the recording of new information. While many memory functions are shared by these two hippocampi, the right hippocampus is notably specialized in recognizing and processing patterns, whether they are related to sound, spatial cues, or visual information. Therefore, the substantial increase in gray matter in the pandits' right hippocampus aligns with the demands of accurate recitation, which necessitates highly precise encoding and reproduction of sound patterns. Additionally, the pandits exhibited significant thickening in regions of the right temporal cortex associated with speech prosody and voice identity.

The status of indigenous languages varies widely around the world, but many of them face significant challenges and are at risk of decline or extinction.

Colonization: The colonization of indigenous lands often led to the imposition of colonial languages, such as Spanish, English, or French, which marginalized and suppressed indigenous languages. Colonizers enforced their languages in education, administration, and other institutions, undermining the use and vitality of indigenous languages.

Language Shift: Language shift occurs when younger generations cease to speak their indigenous languages and instead adopt dominant languages. This is often driven by economic opportunities, the desire for social mobility, and the perception that indigenous languages are of lower prestige.

Loss of Elders: Many indigenous languages rely on elders as primary speakers and repositories of traditional knowledge. The passing of older generations without sufficient transmission of language and culture to younger generations contributes to language loss.

Lack of Educational Support: In many countries, indigenous languages have not been integrated into formal education systems. When indigenous languages are not taught in schools, younger generations may not have opportunities to learn and use them.

Globalization and Media: The dominance of global media and the internet, often in major world languages, can marginalize indigenous languages and contribute to their decline. Younger generations are exposed to media and entertainment primarily in dominant languages.

Social Stigma: In some societies, speaking an indigenous language has been associated with cultural inferiority or discrimination. This can discourage people from using their native languages.

Language Documentation: Some indigenous languages have received limited attention in terms of documentation and preservation efforts. Without documentation, languages may become extinct, and valuable cultural knowledge can be lost.

Revitalization Efforts: Many indigenous communities and organizations are actively engaged in language revitalization efforts. These include language immersion programs, bilingual education initiatives, and the promotion of indigenous languages in media and cultural events.

International Recognition: International bodies, such as the United Nations, have recognized the importance of preserving indigenous languages as part of cultural heritage and human rights. This recognition has led to increased support for language preservation efforts.

Legal Protections: Some countries have enacted legislation to protect and promote indigenous languages. These measures may include language rights, bilingual education, and the recognition of indigenous languages as official languages in certain regions.

Language as a way to preserve biodiversity

A robust relationship exists between linguistic diversity and biodiversity. Regions with the highest number of plant and animal species also tend to have the greatest linguistic diversity. Languages are intricately linked to the specific environments in which they are spoken, meaning that in these regions, they harbor abundant, intricate, and specialized knowledge concerning the local plant and animal life, as well as their habitats.

Linguistic diversity and biodiversity are closely connected in several ways, and their interplay reflects the intricate relationship between human culture and the natural environment.

  • Indigenous and local communities often have unique languages and dialects that have evolved in close connection with their environments. These languages encode traditional ecological knowledge, including sustainable land management practices, medicinal plant use, and understanding of local ecosystems.

  • Linguistic diversity is a repository of this knowledge, and the loss of languages can result in the erosion of valuable insights into biodiversity conservation and sustainable resource management.

  • Indigenous languages often contain highly specific terminology for plant and animal species. These names reflect detailed knowledge about local flora and fauna and their ecological roles.

  • The loss of indigenous languages can lead to the loss of this specialized terminology, making it more challenging for researchers and conservationists to identify and study local species.

  • Many indigenous cultures have traditional practices and rituals that are closely tied to the protection and preservation of their natural environments. These practices often involve linguistic elements, such as songs, stories, and oral traditions.

  • The decline of indigenous languages and cultural practices can weaken the bonds between communities and their natural surroundings, potentially leading to unsustainable land use and threats to biodiversity.

  • Indigenous languages often contain knowledge about the uses of plants and animals for food, medicine, and other purposes. This knowledge is crucial for bioprospecting and the development of sustainable practices.

  • The loss of languages can hinder the identification and preservation of valuable medicinal plants and compounds, potentially affecting both traditional medicine and pharmaceutical research.

The status of indigenous languages varies, but many face the threat of extinction due to historical and ongoing factors such as colonization, language shift, and lack of institutional support. However, there are also positive efforts underway to revitalize and preserve these languages, recognizing their intrinsic value as carriers of unique cultural knowledge and identity.


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