LINGUIST List 3.767

Fri 09 Oct 1992

Disc: Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace

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  1. "David M. W. Powers", Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace

Message 1: Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace

Date: Wed, 07 Oct 92 13:02:25 MEOaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace
From: "David M. W. Powers" <>
Subject: Oaxaca, Language, Culture, Nationalism and Peace

In message <> you write:
>Recently, the Oaxaca Native Literacy Project and the idea that
>computers can help native people preserve their languages has
>gotten some welcome publicity. On Dec. 31, 1991, John Noble
>Wilford, the science editor of the New York Times featured the
>project in his column. In July, CNN's Future Watch did a 7-minute
>story, and last month, Cultural Survival Quarterly published an
>article on the project.
>With start-up support from the Jessie Ball du Pont Foundation, the
>Native Literacy Center became a reality in 1989. Indians from
>around Latin America are coming to learn how to save their
>languages. Salinas runs the center, along with Josefa Gonz lez, a
>Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca. Together they train other Indians to use
>computers to write and to print books in Indian languages.
>helping their people throughout the Americas develop the literacy
>skills necessary for participation in the modern economic and
>political systems of the world. They know that literacy in their
>national language, Spanish, is the key to development. But they
>also know that native literacy - publishing books in their own
>languages - is the key to preserving their heritage.
>Why should we care?
>Why should we support these Indians in their struggle to preserve
>their languages and cultures? In the last 500 years, since the
>landing of Columbus, at least 500 languages have disappeared in the
>Americas. In another hundred years, most of the remaining thousand
>or so languages of the Americas will be gone. The wholesale
>extinction of plant and animal species reduces genetic diversity;
>the wholesale extinction of languages reduces cultural diversity;
>both kinds of extinction threaten us all.

Why should we care?

Throughout history, languages and cultures have come and gone.
Freezing language and culture produces a static culture and an
end to development. Language must change in order to keep up
with a changing and advancing world. Promoting the entrenchment
of a language that is already almost dead (for whatever reasons)
is an artificial process that mediates against the development
of that culture and its taking its place in a world characterized
by increasing ease of communication. This is a threat to us all.

A language with only a few dozen or hundred speakers is NOT going
to be seen as conveying status to its speakers. But it does
introduce a dangerous parochialism where the tribes continue to
assert their identity over against their neighbours. The primary
unifying influence in the world today is English, or in certain
areas French, Spanish, Russian, etc. In the case of the Greek and
Roman empires it was Koine and Latin. These unifying influences,
although often introduced by conquest, were also influences
towards peace. How they were imposed was however an important facet.

By contrast, from the Tower of Babel on, diversity of languages
has been recognized as undermining unification and cooperation.
In times where one would seldom move more than a few miles from
one's place of birth, and journeys of a few hundred were major
expeditions, closed communities were naturally associated with
distinct dialects and languages. The major missions, trade routes
and conquests were the exception to this rule, and the
missionaries, traders and armies brought language unification.

It is natural and proper to want to preserve one's own culture
and history, and indeed these are rich treasure troves for
understanding the human nature and spirit, and not only for
anthropologists. Moreover this culture is tied up with the language
which has grown up with it. But is the most appropriate course
to pour one's effort into promoting literacy in a dying language?
Agreed, communication in one's own language is best, but are we
going to translate whole literatures into each language? And
who is going to read these few Oaxaca books? What ever efforts
we make now, funded as research or subsidy, will eventually be
overwhelmed by market forces.

Let us consider the European scene, where similar events have
played out over a much longer period (not that we know much about
the incas or other previous American civilizations). Is it worth
retaining all the German dialects - some of which are quite far
removed from High German? What about the various Gaelic tongues?
Languages are highly resistant to artificial programs either to
stamp them out or revive them, as is seen particularly in relation
to this latter language group. How much of the difficulties
facing the unification program of the EEC are related to language
and cultural differences.

Consider countries where no imposed or agreed national language
has perculated down to the individual subgroups to a degree
sufficient to raising their identity above the parochial. Look at
events in the last 12 months in the (former) USSR, Czechoslovakia,
Yugoslavia and USA (the race riots). We have small "nations",
several boasting a population a fraction the size of a major city,
at each others throats.

Selfishness is the aim to win ground for one's self and one's own
immediate family. Tribalism, Parochialism and Unionism are just a
level or two removed from this. Nationalism just a level or so further
removed. In each case the aim is to win more for one's own group
at the expense of others. Preservation of culture is a pretty
veil to throw over this ugliness, but are the trade restrictions,
pacts, treaties and wars really necessary for that ideal?

I am an internationalist - although I must carry a passport of one
particular country, and am drawn back there by familiar vistas,
friends and family, I obdure nationalism along with all other
expressions of selfishness. Whilst I am literally a sojourner in
a foreign land (or several), I find much to appreciate in each
country and culture I have spent time in. And I am not so
naive as to think that we are going to reach perfection in this
present world. Even the spread of Christian values is no panacea
for the perniciousness of human selfishness: the theory of "love
your neighbour as your self" can only be put into practice with
the help and power of God (and comes second to "love the Lord your
God with all your heart and soul and mind"). But we are not going
to experience heaven on earth.

So I don't have a solution to propose to all the problems of the
world, but I feel that the focus on preserving dying languages
is misplaced and counterproductive. By all means capture the lore
and culture and language of these communties, providing literature
if there are people to read it. But literacy in the official
languages is much more important, and education into a world
made small by modern day communications and transport
possibilities. Our culture has had centuries to evolve, taking
the technological revolutions as they came. These cultures have
been brought face to face with the modern world too quickly and
with inadequate chance for assimilation.

But for our goal of education and international perspective, we do
need to understand their cultures. I am not proposing to force
anyone to become westernized like me - there are many negative
aspects to our cultures too! But they can't have it both ways,
maintaining their own language and culture, yet wanting to be part
of the modern world, and receive the benefits of technology,
medicine etc. I certainly wouldn't want to be part of a uniform
world, in which one couldn't detect any difference between
Africa, South America and Europe.

To preserve the best of the various cultures and combine
that with the best of ours requires great wisdom, and the
assistance of anthropologists, linguists and in particular
wise leaders from their own communities. In particular,
great understanding of the natural forces toward language
and cultural change are necessary to make this process as
painless as possible.

Threepence from a Computer Scientist,
David M. W. Powers

Dr David M. W. Powers +49-631-13786 (GMT+1) E xtraction
Auf der Vogelweide 1 +49-631-205-3210 (FAX) O f SHOE
W-6750 KAISERSLAUTERN FRG H ierarchical
 S tructure
for Machine Learning of Natural Language and Ontology
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