Society

Recognizing And Reviving Argentina's Indigenous Languages

Researchers have identified more than 30 different languages in the South American country, 15 of which are still spoken on a regular basis.

Over 30 indigenous tribes rally in Buenos Aires.
Javier Firpo

BUENOS AIRES — Argentina may be South America's most Europeanized country, with Spanish, of course, as its official language, but it also has 36 recognized indigenous tongues (belonging to 38 peoples).

That is the conclusion that researchers involved in a year-long project create the country's first comprehensive language map presented earlier this month in Buenos Aires as part of the UN's 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Of those, 15 are still in more or less common use, nine are in the process of recuperation, and 12 are classified as "without speakers," as opposed to "extinct," since technically speaking "they're not dead," explains Daniel Huircapán, 34, a member of the Querandí people. "No one knows of anyone who still speaks those languages, but doesn't mean people won't do so in the future," he adds.

Huircapán, from Chubut, was one the people who contributed to the language mapping project. His ancestral language is Gününa-Küne (or Puelche). "The map was based on various research projects carried out on native peoples," he explains.

The project is an extension of a so-called "re-ethnicization" movement in Argentina. It's an effort to rediscover the country's indigenous past, when until as late as 1810, the country had 38 different groups of native peoples, most of which are now largely forgotten. "Many indigenous cultures were silenced for various reasons, but the re-ethnicization process has helped us learn about them," says Huircapán.

He now teaches Gününa-Küne at the University of Buenos Aires School of Languages, where he also studies anthropology. Huircapán sees the process as part of "an affirmation across Latin America in response to globalization, which has overshadowed the native peoples who have in turn returned to their roots."

A 2010 government census, based on figures compiled in 2004-5, listed the most widely spoken native languages in Argentina to be Mapuche (or mapudungun), Quechua, Guaraní, Qom-Quaqtaq, Wichí and Aymará, according to UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency.

These languages are largely unknown as they only remain in sparsely inhabited areas.

Andrea Taverna, a psychologist, specialist in psycholinguistics and researcher at CONICET, Argentina's state research institute, says it is important to have a map that reflects the national presence of native languages. "It's also necessary because these are without a doubt part of our cultural heritage, and more so in a multilingual country like Argentina," she says.

Carolina Hetch, an anthropologist specializing in native communities, says it is "very useful to have a map that describes the existence of indigenous languages, but I don't know of one put together by indigenous organizations or universities. Based on my experience and fieldwork I can tell you it is very difficult to create one, but it is important for the 2020 census to include questions regarding indigenous languages."

Unfortunately, these languages are largely unknown as they only remain in sparsely inhabited areas. "I had the opportunity to interact with speakers of native languages and noted their presence and liveliness in my own country," explains Taverna, who studies Wichí. "You feel like a foreigner in those zones, which is why I think a map with the different languages is not so much a need as a right for their speakers."

Indigenous people in Buenos Aires — Photo: Patricio Murphy/ZUMA

Cristina Messineo, another language specialist, agrees. "Argentina is a country that historically has negated and hidden its multi-linguistic matrix, especially relating to native peoples," she says. "The myth that we are all white and European and that the Indians belong to the past falls apart when you consider the latest polls, where the number of those recognizing their indigenous roots (nearly 1 million), exceeds the number who see this as a homogeneous nation speaking a single language."

Hetch wants strategies to revive such languages. "We need education policies aimed at indigenous people and that focus on preserving their traditional skills and languages," she says. "On the other hand, something that can benefit indigenous languages are new technologies like Facebook and Whatsapp, which are becoming new spaces where these languages can circulate."

Huircapán says that nine indigenous languages are "in revitalization," meaning there are enough speakers left to confirm their continued existence. "Our language too was one of those declared extinct and thanks to this project, we could show that our people not dead," he says. "We the Tehuelche-Querandí are still alive and our language still has speakers."

So why do languages disappear? Is it racism, marginalization, fear of reprisals or shame? Huircapán says that in the case of Argentina, there has long been a process of hegemony whereby people think of the country has having just one language and culture. "That led to natives being relegated and hidden," he says. "They themselves gradually went quiet, but it's simply not true that all Argentines arrived here on boats. That's a false assumption."

Losing a language is to lose a way of understanding the world, a way in which the human being speaks in relation with his or her surrounding territory. "It's about losing a part of our essence," says Huircapán. "It means losing a tool of transmission or how we understand the world, talk, think, feel. We lose our spirit. It's not easy explaining the loss of a language."

Taverna says that speakers of indigenous languages have been sidelined because of the way Europeans and the Spanish language came to dominate in Argentina. "And of course we cannot ignore marginalization and racism," she says. "I think many indigenous people choose to learn Spanish to be more competitive and avoid being tricked."

So why do languages disappear? Is it racism, marginalization, fear of reprisals or shame?

Huircapán welcomes the "reparative" changes taking place, the efforts being made to recognize and resurrect native tongues. "It is time we understood and warned about the importance of these different native languages that are a part of history, ours, and which cannot be ignored, even if the official historical discourse ignores them."

Taverna works with the Wichí community in the province of Formosa, where she says Wichí children are being taught their tongue as a first language. She says other children learning Spanish in cities must show "understanding" in this regard, and respect "diversity of culture and languages, and not see these little children as an exotic phenomenon, which would lead to situations of segregation and discrimination."

Messineo, for her part, emphasizes the positive influence of migrants coming from neighboring countries like Paraguay and Bolivia, who speak indigenous languages on a daily basis at home and at work, especially in sectors like building or fruit picking. And now that they're moving more and more into Argentina's urban centers, they're children, she notes, set an example for others to follow.

"More little boys and girls go to school speaking an indigenous language," Messineo says.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ