Why Protecting Indigenous Language is Essential to Protecting The Environment

By Izzy Tolhurst.

“If we are to defend the land from further degradation, we have to begin by knowing what it is we are talking about." So reads the final line of John Burnside’s review of Robert Macfarlane’s 2015 book Landmarks in The Guardian. Macfarlane’s book details the "language of landscape" of the British archipelago, gathering words and phrases that with absolute precision describe occurrences and visions in nature.

“Smout” for example, is a “hole in a hedge used by a hare”, “ar’ris” is the “last weak movements of a tide before still water”, and “frazil” are the “loose, needle-like ice crystals that form into a churning slush in turbulent super-cooled water, for example in a river on a very cold night”. With just three examples it becomes apparent that words like “rain”, “tide” and even “environment” are elementary and vague, providing little to those for whom a highly specified way of describing place is critical to way of life.

Indigenous Australian existence also revolves around an intense respect and knowledge of the natural world, with communities having complex language systems and means of expression for the ecosystems around them.

Bruce Pascoe is a writer, teacher and director at First Languages Australia, an organisation that ensures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are considered, consulted and respected in matters that impact the management of their languages. He believes this inclusion is central to the survival of Australia's traditional languages. Pascoe has Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage and follows Yuin lore, and says that, “All Australian Aboriginal societies see the Earth as the Mother and our responsibility is to her. Everything we do is for her sake.”

“Bingyadyan ngallu birrung nudjarn jungarung,” he continues. “We rise from the mother's heartbeat. Yuin men are obliged to begin and end every formal conversation with this statement or others like it,” he says.

Associate Professor Rachel Nordlinger, Director of the Research Unit for Indigenous Language at University of Melbourne also understands that Indigenous languages capture a deep knowledge of the environment.

“These languages encode detailed knowledge about how the natural world works – information about which plants flower in which seasons, which animals eat which plants or what it means for the weather when a certain insect swarms. In that sense Indigenous languages are crucial in terms of our protection of the environment, as they encode within them more information about the environment and its processes and behaviours than we can get from English,” she says.

Nordlinger adds that this specialised vocabulary for plants, animals and their parts have identified species not yet recognised by Western science. So, if species don’t exist in Western science, then how can Western science protect them? We need words to understand complex ecologies. If we do not have the words, we cannot understand them or even know that they exist. At this point, it is easier to understand why we failed to defend our environment. Protecting and sharing diverse and sophisticated language systems for our landscapes and living things essentially make evident why it is essential to protect them.

In 2004, the gathering and collating of narrative accounts, poems, songs, paintings, photos and etymological information saved the Brindled Moor of Lewis in Scotland. Engineering company AMEC had planned to build what, at the time, would have been Europe’s largest wind farm, but after local protestors created a detailed phrasebook about the area, drawing on the knowledge and stories of many people in the region, the Scottish Executive rejected AMEC’s applications, ruling that longstanding storylines and community relationships with the moor rendered it precious, and vital to protect.

Nordlinger says Indigenous language loss is “severe”, with only 15 of originally close to 300 languages and associated dialects still being learnt as a first language by children. Pascoe however, remains optimistic, preferring “to be excited by the recovery and the numbers of people wanting to re-learn.”

“We have words and phrases that caution us in our care of country. We have to ask the animals and plants for everything we take. It makes us super-conscious of every act. This is my lore,” Pascoe says.

Bruce Pascoe.  Image:  provided.

Bruce Pascoe. Image: provided.


Indigenous Australians fully understand that land, language, and indeed our identities are continuous. Burnside scathingly argues that, “Only an illiterate invader thinks of this river, that herd of bison, or the wind itself as a mere resource; only a benighted land-management consultant can blissfully ignore the fact that our relationship to the land around us is, or should be, a dialogue and that participation in that dialogue can involve deep knowledge, not only of the words, but also of the things they denote.” Arguably, we would all serve our environment and ourselves better if we had a more profound and respectful knowledge of it.

In Australia, Pascoe says that protecting Indigenous language means that, “No school should be allowed to teach French, Greek or Vietnamese unless they already teach the local Aboriginal language. If there are no teachers then find the oldest and wisest and train them. Get up in the morning and speak to the country in language. Thank the Little Wattlebird for its song and praise it for carrying the entire universe on its back, as the wattlebird is deeply speckled like the night sky,” he says.

“We protect the languages by using them and ensuring the welfare and dignity of those who use them,” he concludes. 

Izzy Tolhurst is a freelance writer and content producer.

Image: David Cook, Flickr.