"Indigenous Languages Are Founts of Environmental Knowledge"

"Peoples who live close to nature have a rich lore of plants, animals, and landscapes embedded in their mother tongues".

"Language, it is often said, is a window into the human mind. David Harrison experienced this firsthand as a young linguist in the 1990s when he traveled to the Russian republic of Tuva to spend a year with a group of herding nomads. During time with the Tuvans, he witnessed the close relationship between these Indigenous people and the animals, nature and landscapes they coexist with. That connection is deeply ingrained not only in Tuvan culture, but also in their language, from its rich vocabulary for describing their livestock and the world around them to its very sound, which can closely mimic noises of the landscape.

Harrison has since studied Indigenous languages in other parts of the world—from the Pacific islands of Vanuatu to the highlands of Vietnam—and learned that many of them are nature-centric in this way, reflecting millennia of deep observation of the natural world. Scholars increasingly recognize that many of these tongues encode much knowledge about the world’s species and ecosystems that is unknown to Western science—knowledge, Harrison argues, that may prove critical to protecting nature amid a global extinction crisis.

Harrison notes that the United Nations and other bodies have long acknowledged that Indigenous communities are usually better stewards of biodiversity than other people who are less attached to nature. “If we’re willing to be humble enough to learn from Indigenous people,” Harrison says, “what they know could help save the planet.”

Working with Indigenous communities to understand the environmental knowledge embedded in their languages is the goal of “environmental linguistics,” a line of research Harrison describes in a 2023 article in the Annual Review of Linguistics. This task is urgent, as many of the world’s thousands of Indigenous languages are threatened themselves, at risk of being replaced by more commonly spoken languages."

Katarina Zimmer reports for Knowable magazine February 11, 2024.

Source: Knowable, 02/16/2024