Language plays a fundamental role in human cognition, perception and ultimately behaviour. Language also plays a critical role in cultural wisdom, societal health and well-being, and communities’ ability to adapt and change over time.
Like many other social patterns and practices, language is a type of social and psychotechnology inherited from one generation to the next. Human’s ability to use language has transformed our relationship with the world around us and our presence in it. Language is the primary method by which human societies’ encode our cultural values, worldviews and behaviours and disseminate them from generation to generation, tuku iho tuku iho.
Linguistics, the study of human languages, is a fascinating branch of anthropology. Linguistic modelling demonstrates that human language predictably changes over time in quite predictable ways and this can be used to help understand how closely related different groups of people are and the migration of cultures over time. However, aside from the natural ‘evolution’ of language over time, linguistics helps us to understand how factors such as local ecology and climate play a huge role in shaping our understanding of the world and encoding it in language. Our intimate and daily interactions with the living world around us shape our understanding of the world, how we describe the world and share this understanding with others from our culture.
In this article I explore the concept of a language of place, why it matters and pathways towards the re-emergence of local language in Tāmaki Makaurau.
I argue that in an age of simplification and relocalisation that the re-emergence of local language becomes both very likely and also desirable as we rebuild our sense of place and rediscover intimate relationships with the world around us. I believe that a mature language of place will be one of the key determinants of local cultures’ ability to navigate the age of limits and maintain a localised quality of life.
He iti te mokoroa, nāna i kati te kahikatea
The mokoroa (grub) may be small, but it cuts through the kahikatea
Languages of place, or local languages differ from colonial and global languages in that they emerge from the unique and intimate relationships that develop over multiple generations that local people have with their environment. Over the past century alone around 400 languages have gone extinct1, and today over 40% of living human languages are endangered2, all of which are local languages. With the loss of local languages we lose cultural wisdom and knowledge about the patterns and intimate relationships within local environments, and our non-human relations that live in these environments, which have been accumulated over many, many generations. As globalisation continues its impacts on the world I don’t think it is a coincidence that our world is experiencing both unprecedented language and species extinction.
Kua ngaro i te ngaro o te moa
Lost as the moa was lost
Local languages by their nature are indigenous. Local languages capture and share observations, insights, and knowledge that have been deemed worthy of encoding and passing on as a type of cultural legacy and inheritance. For example, many whakataukī Māori reveal and record intimate observations about nature which are passed down from generation to generation. They often espouse cultural values and contain observations about the human condition as well as links between the natural world, such as flowering times and animal activity or note the abundance of food resources exposing seasonal cycles and natural flows3.
I whea koe i te tahuritanga o te rau o te kotukutuku, i te raratanga o te waha o te koekoea?
Where were you at the time of the turning of the kotukutuku leaf, in the season when the continuous sound of the long-tailed cuckoo’s voice was heard?
The Anishinabe people of the Great Lakes area of North America talk about how their cultural folk hero, Nanabozho, gave names to everything he encountered as he walked through their traditional lands for the first time and this process of the (human) newcomer meeting and greeting the (non-human) locals formed much of the vocabulary of the Anishinaabe language4. This rich cultural narrative, and many others about Nanabozho, encodes many values and beliefs that have served the Anishinaabeg and supported them to live in a conscious relationship with their environment. This story also serves to remind them of how young we are as a species and inhabitant of their unique life place compared to most of their living relations with whom they co-exist. Therefore acknowledging that they have been here a lot longer than us and have learned many things in that time, that we can learn if we are willing to enter into relationship with them, is a cultural antidote to human hubris - a reminder that most other species and certainly endemic ones are tuakana - humans are teina5.
Imagine if you can, situations where having language to describe very subtle environmental changes can make a huge difference to a people’s understanding of the world around them, maybe even life and death. This level of sophisticated understanding of the local environment and local conditions, encoded in local language, supports local cultures to anticipate changes in their environment, take advantage of ‘insider knowledge’ about fluctuations in local conditions, and plan ahead. I have heard a Ngāti Wai knowledge keeper share about how his ancestors migrated from Hawaiiki to avoid famine based on messages shared with them by kiore6. As a sign of gratitude, the kiore were welcomed on their waka as honoured guests and brought with them to Aotearoa. Members of Ngāti Wai to this day recognise that historic relationship and continue to advocate for the protection of kiore as friends and allies in honour of their service to Ngāti Wai ancestors generations ago. Very specific local knowledge about kiore, encoded in language, would have allowed those subtle shifts in kiore behaviour to be noted, discussed and used to make life changing decisions about migrating across Moana-nui-a-Kiwa to avoid hard times and potential starvation.
Indigenous concepts of time, rhythms, and cycles are not at all universal, but finely tuned to realities of living in a particular environment for long periods of time encoded in language and passed from one generation to the next, adapting, changing and evolving with changes in local conditions.
Ka tangi te wharauroa, ko nga karere a Mahuru
If the shining cuckoo cries, it is the messenger of spring
Māori lunar time, annual calendars and the marking of seasons developed over hundreds of years of astute observation living in particular places. The revitalisation of maramataka7 might be a critical pathway to the creation of a bioregional language of place with local lunar calendars being finely re-attuned to local environments, climates and ecologies. I know of an initiative by Waiohua iwi (Te Maanuka / Te Manukanuka o Hoturoa / Manukau Harbour) focused on revitalising maramataka Waiohua and using it as an integral tool in Te Whakaoranga o te Puhinui - the regeneration of the Puhinui catchment. The intention is for this indigenous calendar to help inform decision making on a wide range of matters, from the planting and harvesting of food to planting trees, through to organising community events and scheduling wānanga8 and strategy workshops. By comparison, I cannot imagine the limited lexicon of New Zealand English’s four seasons and four quarters of the lunar cycle to be remotely up for the task of re-calibrating local human behaviours to align with local rhythms and natural pulses.
Whether our food comes from local sources or global supply chains significantly impacts on the language and words we use to understand and describe our diet. The chances are high that if you eat a global diet (i.e. most of your food comes from a supermarket / somewhere else) that you will have an impoverished vocabulary to help you to recognise, find, harvest, process, store, cook with and even optimise the nutritional value of locally available food sources. Imagine a language of place in which just by virtue of learning to speak your local tongue you acquire many of the skills required to feed yourself, your whānau and your community.
Hauhake tū, ka tō Matariki
Lift the crop when Matariki sets
Ndee Indé (Western Apache), from the region known today as central Arizona, code cultural values and wisdom in specific landscapes and sites of significance in territories they have occupied for 500 years. Much of their cultural wisdom sits in places9 - in local cultural landscapes that are both familiar and meaningful to the people - this wisdom is transmitted via storytelling in the Ndee biyáti' language about the events that happened in times past in the local area. These stories encode the values of these people and their learning over time about how to live well in place. They use these landscapes as a living storyboard to pass on cultural values and knowledge from generation to generation.
Might Kaiwhare, Horotiu and other taniwha of this bioregion reclaim their prominence and their stories again encode cultural knowledge that help inform a local understanding and sense of place?
Hoki atu ki tōu maunga kia purea ai e koe ki ngā hau o Tāwhirimātea
Return to your ancestral mountains to be cleansed by the winds of Tāwhirimatea.
Today in Tāmaki Makaurau, and specifically in South Auckland, Te Ara Journeys are using digital technologies to share traditional stories of place and bring cultural landscapes back to life for local people. This, and similar initiatives, might provide the pathway to re-creating a stronger and more meaningful sense of place.
What does the dominant language of Auckland tell us about what we value, how to value it, and what to do to acquire and secure our access to those things? How locally attuned and inspired is this common language? Does it reflect anything unique or distinct about the Auckland bioregion? Not really, our current language is both colonial and global in nature. It is better at disseminating and normalising cultural values and popular cultural trends from the other side of the planet than helping to predict the weather or how to find a meal outside of global supply chains. Imagine if you can, the cultural changes and shifting relationship to the natural world that have happened in Tāmaki Makaurau over the last 200 years since te reo Māori and local dialects within the bioregion were the primary way in which people living in the area communicated (including English, Scottish and Irish migrants). Now consider modern Aucklanders who use a universal Western colonial and consumption based language to understand and talk about the world and imagine how different life would have been when local hapū dialects encoded day-to-day information about the world and our place in it.
If the Limits to Growth modelling10, and other thinkers such as Howard Odum11, David Holmgren12, Samuel Alexander13 and John Michael Greer14 are right and we are transitioning into a post growth, post industrial, post consumer society, then the Great Simplification, as Nate Hagens15 describes it, will have far reaching implications for the re-emergence of languages of place. A significant reduction in global energy availability almost inevitably means that the way of life for the majority of those who rely on cheap abundant energy, which is most Aucklanders today, will move from the global to the local. Therefore, with an ever diminishing influence of global industrial consumption culture (music, fashion, media etc.) on our way of life, new patterns of living will emerge which will require new ways of thinking and interacting with our local environments again, and this in turn will require local language to again encode and pass on this adapting and evolving local culture.
Given this localised vision for the future I invite you to ponder with me …
…which species or seasonal environmental changes will act as tohu16 to help inform cultural practices and seasonal behaviours?
…which landmarks, or sites of significance will future Aucklanders use to store and share local wisdom? How localised might they be? Tāmaki Makaurau is a large place!
…what local stories of place will our descendants use to shape their sense of local belonging and purpose?
… what new stories of place might emerge as we navigate the great simplification?
2 There are over 2,800 endangered languages.
3 Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction. Published: September 6, 2018 8.04am NZST. John Megahan / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND
4 The Mishomis Book : The Voice of the Ojibway, Edward Benton-Banai.
5 The tuakana-teina relationship is a core social concept in Māori culture recognising the roles of tuakana as elder and teina as junior.
6 Rattus exulans, the Polynesian rat is the third most widely distributed rat on earth. They can be found from Bangladesh to the Philippines and Taiwan through to Hawai’i and Easter Island, and are considered native in South-East Asia but an introduced species throughout the Pacific.
7 Traditional Māori calendar used to track and mark time and organise daily life through lunar rhythms and cycles.
8 Refers to both the cultural practice of coming together to discuss, deliberate, consider and share knowledge as well as important traditional cultural, religious, historical, genealogical and philosophical knowledge itself.
9 Keith Basso. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
10 Club of Rome Report, Meadows et al.
11 A Prosperous Way Down.
12 Permaculture co-originator.
13 Simplicity Institute.
14 The Long Descent, Arch Druid Report.
15 Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future.
16 Signs, markers or cultural wayfinders.