Decolonizing Your Language is a Powerful Way To Resist

Words matter. People may not realize it, but our worldviews are built into and shaped by our language. While English is perfectly capable of expressing important ideas, it does lack a very important inherent aspect… a set of values that are often ingrained into indigenous languages about the connectivity of people, plants and animals to the land.

English Contains The Constructs of Colonialism and Capitalism

In fact, the English language is more likely to contain the constructs of colonialism and capitalism built into it. It’s a language born of these circumstances and encompasses these worldviews.

Take the word “environment.” English speakers take this word for granted, yet embedded in the word is an assumption that the space and life in the area surrounding us is separate from us. That’s a colonial word and idea. Indigenous languages usually don’t have a word like this because indigenous people make no distinction between humans and environment. An environment doesn’t exist outside of us.

English is also a tool of assimilation.

“The first step to be taken toward civilization toward teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing in their barbarous practices, is to teach them the English language.”

Commissioner of Indian Affairs J. D. C. Atkins, 1888

Resisting the Coloniality of English: A Research Review of Strategies

I write and share in this language right now primarily because we need a means to communicate across cultures to have class and earth-based solidarity.

“If the preservation of other cultures is given the same importance and value as spreading English is currently receiving, the language can be an addition, not a replacement, to a naturally evolving culture’s array of nuances.” (The Linguistic Colonialism of English)

Loss of Language Limits How We Imagine The World

George Orwell touched on the topic of how a loss of language can mean people are no longer able to imagine certain possibilities of resistance and human freedom, in his now famous book Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

As Madeleine Bunting points out in an amazing article I recommend called “The language of resistance: Gaelic’s role in community fight-back against corporate greed,” George Orwell wrote that book in the attic of a farmhouse at Barnhill in North Jura, Scotland.

“A typewriter still sits at the desk where he worked, and from the window, there is a magnificent view east to Argyll across the water. He would have been well aware of the relevance of lost language to his crofting neighbours with whom he worked on the hay harvest. When you lose a language, you lose the world view that it encapsulates, and in the case of Gaelic, it is one which challenges some of the most deeply embedded assumptions of modernity such as capitalism and individualism.

But what intrigued me was a different set of issues – and it goes to the heart of Orwell’s insight – about how Gaelic provides a language of resistance to capitalism; it is inherently counter-cultural, challenging central concepts such as the notion of private property.

Take the word “dùthchas”. There is no succinct way to translate it because it incorporates a rich set of ideas. My Gaelic dictionary translates it as “place of origin” or “homeland”. But on Lewis, I was told it means much more. It’s a collective claim on the land which is reinforced and lived out through the shared management of that land. It is a right which is grounded in daily habits and activities and it is bound up with relationships to others, and responsibilities. It gives rise to the idea, identified by the scholar Michael Newton, that “people belong to places rather than places belonging to people”. Gaelic turns notions of ownership on their head.”

Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, also makes commentary on this use of language in his post, “Dúthchas: The word that describes understanding of land, people and culture.”

“The importance of this concept of the connectedness and inter-relationships between land, people and culture, held in the word “dùthchas”, cannot be overestimated. It prefigures our 21st-century idea of the need for ecological balance and care and it helps us read more deeply into the literature of Scotland and the social traditions from which it arises.”

The Worldview of Environmental Connectivity is Embedded in Indigenous languages

This is true of the language of the Celts, including both Gaelic and Brittonic languages. In Welsh it’s cynefin.

The language of resistance to the forces destroying the planet via colonization and greed are found in indigenouse tongues. In these words we find a sense of how lands don’t belong to us, but rather we belong to lands.

Decolonize Your Words

Whatever lands you belong to, find the indigenous words and use them. It’s important to understand the words that belong to the land you reside on. Use the name places, and know the plant and animal names.

You may find it also makes sense to learn and use your own ancestral language, if your people are from another land. Look within for your own answers.

Decolonizing Your Language is a Powerful Way To Resist

However one finds a connection to indigenous language, the important thing is how these words shape our worldview. There are a variety of ways decolonizing reconnects us with paradigms that oppose the predominant culture’s destructive views on things like productivity, happiness, property ownership and morality.

That’s why decolonizing our lives is a vital component in our solidarity of resistance. The colonizer cultures destroy indigenous cultures and languages for a reason. It’s how they assimilate people into their collective. That is exactly what we must resist.