Roughly 250 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory is a place called Utopia. Composed of a loose collection of sparsely populated clan sites in the inland desert, the area is the traditional homeland of the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr peoples, roughly 500 of whom still live in Utopia today. The area wasn’t settled by white colonisers until the 1920s, when a group of German pastoralists – ‘demented by the ferocity of the heat and dust’, as the veteran Australian journalist John Pilger put it in an interview for the online magazine Truthout – arrived at a place where the rabbits were so unafraid of humans that they could be caught by hand.
Beyond the women’s batik club, founded in Utopia in the 1970s, and responsible for producing some of the most prominent 20th-century artists in Australia, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who represented the country at the 1997 Venice Biennale, there is an important sense in which the territory seems to be living up to its idealistic name: a small body of relatively new scholarship has identified Utopia – where 88 per cent of the population speaks Alyawarr, and just 3.5 per cent report speaking exclusively English at home – as the site of an intriguing phenomenon, the link between the wellbeing of a language and the wellbeing of its speakers.
‘Language is medicine,’ state the authors who explore precisely this nexus in The Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages (2018). Collectively, these authors are involved in documenting, teaching, researching and maintaining a diverse array of languages across what is now North America. Their striking observation, informed in many cases by scholarship in the authors’ own communities, crystallises the central claim of a small but growing body of research that insists that the declining health of a community’s language does not merely occur alongside sickness in a community but is itself the root of this sickness. If true, the opposite holds as well: namely, that strengthening the use of Indigenous languages offers a path towards physical and emotional healing for their speakers. As the language advocate X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell put it in the opening to his Tlingit learners’ guide: ‘The Tlingit language is medicinal in its importance to Tlingit people.’ The title of his textbook puts matters more plainly: Haa Wsineix̱ Haa Yoo X̱ʼatángi – Our Language Saved Us (2016).
At a time when minority languages around the world face continuing pressures from dominant cultures to assimilate – something we witnessed clearly during the COVID-19 pandemics, when vital medical information was literally unavailable across the United States’ big cities in numerous languages spoken by minority groups – what can these perspectives tell us about how we define wellness? What might they add to our understanding of where the tongue ends and the body (corporeal and politic) begins? [Continue reading…]