In Langscape Magazine Articles

Maintaining the Linguasphere in the Anthropocene

April 01, 2017

by Peter Bridgewater

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biocultural diversity

Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Traditional burning from roadside, using modern methods. Photo: Parks Australia, n.d.

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One of the books that most influenced me as a young student was The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist. His work on evolution, though not uncontested, remains some the most important in the world of paleontology. In The Phenomenon of Man, he writes: “The present zoological era… is positively renewing the face of the earth. … We must go further and declare that ‘within this human era we are actually passing through a singular critical epoch.’ It is our wish to seek in that supreme manifestation of biological forces surrounding us, a final and direct reason for admitting the distinct existence and believing in the certain future of a noosphere.”

Without a doubt, Teilhard de Chardin’s singular contribution was this concept of a noosphere  —  the “thinking envelope” that overlays the biosphere, which in turn overlays the geosphere and hydrosphere, all interacting to sustain life. In developing this idea (probably alongside the Russian Vladimir Vernadsky), he was also identifying the special place of people in nature. Despite the impact his writings had on me, he was poorly regarded both by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and by many academics in the earth sciences. Yet his ideas feed into the rethinking of human impact on the biosphere that has led to notions of the co-evolution of cultural and biological diversity — or biocultural diversity.

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biocultural diversity

Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. Traditional burning from roadside, using modern methods. Photo: James Hunt, n.d.

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During the 1990s, I had the privilege of working with Aboriginal people in two national parks in Northern Australia. Through those people and their language skills, deep knowledge of the landscapes that were their homes, and profound sense of spirituality, I learned that not only did the noosphere exist, but also there was an allied concept, the linguasphere. In a 1999 article, building on the concept of the noosphere, my linguist daughter and I developed the idea of the linguasphere, which combined language and culture as an important means for people to interact with the environment, as well as with one another. At the same time, the concept of biocultural diversity was developing, likewise stimulated by language studies. As with the linguasphere, biocultural diversity has not only a scientific base, but also a spiritual base.

The idea of the linguasphere… combines language and culture as an important means for people to interact with the environment, as well as with one another.

But the phrase in single quotes in the Teilhard de Chardin passage above shows that there was another idea forming in the great scholar’s mind. We now recognize that we are indeed passing through a “singular epoch,” the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is about to be accepted as the newest geological epoch  —  although not without argumentation. As the word suggests, the Anthropocene has been proposed as the geological epoch distinguished by the global influences of humankind. At its heart, the Anthropocene embodies a concept that appears radical to many: that people and nature can no longer be seen as separate. There is no more nature that stands apart from people. There is no landscape or species that people haven’t affected or changed. As people, we are now affecting the cycle of weather and seasons, changing the boundaries of species, ecosystems, and bioregions, and daily manipulating the genomes that shape the rest of biodiversity. The question is no longer “can we preserve the wild from people’s actions?” It is “can we sustainably shape a world we seem unable to stop changing?” The Anthropocene suggests a worldview in which humans are not just relevant but entirely responsible for the fate of the planet. There’s a sense of epic impatience about viewing ourselves in the midst of the Anthropocene: we want the potential disasters or glories of the future to be visible now.

In the epoch of the Anthropocene, it is especially important to recognize the linguasphere as a key component of human activity and potential indicator of landscape health. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) already uses the “Index of Linguistic Diversity” (developed by Terralingua) as an indicator of success in reaching its Target 18 by 2020. CBD Target 18 mandates that “By 2020, the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their customary use of biological resources, are respected, subject to national legislation and relevant international obligations, and fully integrated and reflected in the implementation of the Convention with the full and effective participation of indigenous and local communities, at all relevant levels.”

The concept of linguasphere resonates importantly with the environment  —  and with human management of that environment. People have helped shape existing biodiversity, and through positive feedback biodiversity plays a major role in shaping cultural memory  —  especially through the medium of the linguasphere. Twenty years on since the concept was proposed, and reinforced by the twentieth anniversary of Terralingua, it is time to revisit the linguasphere and see if we can make good use of the concept in our navigation of the Anthropocene.

The linguasphere can define both the envelope of human communications and the envelope of human cultural exchanges. Many authors have described how languages decline due to destruction or change of the habitats and ecological bases of the speakers  —  creating endangered languages in parallel with the more familiar case of endangered species (and, less often identified but equally critical, endangered spaces or ecosystems).

Indeed, postulated extinction rates for languages parallel those for species over the next century — and the forces for extinction are essentially the same, biotic and cultural homogenization of people and landscapes.

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biocultural diversity

Norfolk Island National Park. Entry sign in Norf’k language, reading in translation: “Come and have a look, everyone.” Photo: Peter Bridgewater, n.d.

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Endangered ecosystems are often said to be in need of preservation, yet that is the wrong word. They should be conserved, that is, used and managed in a responsible way, not kept in metaphorical glass cases. The inherent dynamics of ecosystems, coupled with the increasing unpredictability of living in the Anthropocene, reinforce this view. Similarly, maintaining an ecosystem should not imply it cannot be changed, used, or developed by people, just as maintaining a language should not imply the language cannot change or develop. A language, like an ecosystem, is dynamic in nature and will change and adapt to new situations as they arise  —  as Indigenous languages have done for millennia, and as today’s dominant languages such as Spanish, Arabic, and English are also doing, ever more rapidly.

How, then, does this noosphere/linguasphere manifest itself? Language and culture act in synergy to form unique worldviews containing a wealth of knowledge. These worldviews and knowledge systems are best accessed through the languages that are associated with a particular culture. This realization is beginning to dawn in many places around the world. In Australia, as the wider community truly embraces the realities of multiculturalism, there is growing awareness that traditional Aboriginal languages can enrich everyone with a bounty of linguistic and cultural diversity. On Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, the islanders (descended from the Mutineers of the Bounty) have maintained their own traditional language, a unique mixture of eighteenth century Platt Deutsch, Tahitian, and West Country English. Norf’k, as the language is called, has its own words for plants and animals of the island, the bounty of the sea, and the ways in which people intersect with these aspects of the environment for food and shelter. Again this emphasizes the role of language in linking even modern living to the environment people find themselves in.

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biocultural diversity

Ngan’gi Seasons Calendar from the Daly River, Northern Territory. Source: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), 2009. Reproduced with CSIRO permission.

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To maintain a diversity of worldviews and knowledge systems we must maintain cultural diversity, and to access these worldviews and knowledge systems we must maintain linguistic diversity. “In recognizing our roots and recovering the language, we reclaim part of our identity, too,” wrote Cristina Zárraga in the last issue of Langscape. “We won’t be the same as in the old days, but with the new energy of hybridity, we will be able to recreate our history in the present and into the future.” Her article doesn’t explicitly mention the linguasphere or the Anthropocene, but her powerful writing takes us there all the same, and serves to underline my message.

The linkage between languages, cultures, and the landscapes/seascapes in which they developed poses the question: “Is the maintenance of cultural and linguistic diversity really comparable to the maintenance of biodiversity?” The answer is clearly yes. While knowledge about the natural world may be encoded in an Indigenous language, that same knowledge is not retrieved easily through other languages that lack specific vocabulary to describe local biodiversity and resource management practices. Using this idea, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has published a range of ecological calendars, essentially based on aspects of the linguasphere.

To maintain a diversity of worldviews and knowledge systems we must maintain cultural diversity, and to access these worldviews and knowledge systems we must maintain linguistic diversity.

As the first European explorer to travel through far Northern Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, Ludwig Leichhardt recorded in some detail the extent of burning he saw being undertaken by Aboriginal people on the floodplains of the South Alligator River. Such burning was (and still is) carried out for a variety of utilitarian purposes, particularly in relation to hunting activities and the gathering of vegetable foods. But there is also a cultural dimension, indeed imperative, expressed in the activity of arri wurlhge, a term describing the burning/cleaning of country from the early-mid dry season. This dimension relates to the timing of burns in connection to likely rainfall and the consequent growth of particular species, which in turn promote population increase in a range of animals used for food. It also allows the landscape to become very heterogeneous in texture, lessening the potential for extensive wildfires to develop from lightning strikes, thus making for safer and more resilient living. While living in a very different ecosystem 2,000 km away, the traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in central Australia also practice burning as a landscape management tool, mediated through language, art, dance, and tradition — all elements of the linguasphere. And so the linguasphere includes not only language but also law/lore.

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linguistic diversity

Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. Fire management: timing guided by the Linguasphere, action using modern techniques. Photo: Parks Australia, n.d.

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To sum up, a final comment from Nipper Kapirigu, Traditional Elder in Kakadu National Park, Australia, from a conversation recorded in 1984 about when, why, and where to burn country:

“You start burn’im in banngerreng [end of the wet season], then proper in yegge, wurrgeng [cool time, mid dry season]… ‘e won’t burn much. But that anrebel (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and that andjalen (E. miniata) bin finish flowering, in gurrung proper [hot time, late dry season] that fire can travel day and night, all week. You gotta be careful, that’s important. Then after, when that first storm come, in gunumeleng, you can burn’im again. Good story that one? That’s the law.”

So by maintaining and using all the languages in the linguasphere and their stores of traditional knowledge, law, and lore, human societies can continue with ecological management at many different scales, from local to global, helping us survive, if not prosper, in the Anthropocene.

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Acknowledgments. Celia Vuckovic has been a great stimulus for these ideas as they developed since 1996. I am grateful to many folk in Parks Australia, both staff and National Park Board members, for help in sourcing and gaining permission for the illustrations — and in the 1990s for providing the environment that stimulated the linguasphere idea.

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Peter Bridgewater is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Museums and Heritage, a visiting professor at Beijing Forestry University, and an adjunct professor at the Institute of Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra, where he pursues an interest in the links between biological and cultural diversities.


Further Reading

Bridgewater, P. B., & Bridgewater, C. (1999). Cultural landscapes: The only way for sustainable living. In P. Kovář (Ed.), Nature and Culture in Landscape Ecology: Experiences for the 3rd Millennium (pp. 37–45). Prague, Czech Republic: Karolinum Press.

Bridgewater, P., Russell-Smith, J., & Cresswell, I. (1998). Vegetation science in a cultural landscape: The case of Kakadu National Park. Phytocoenologia, 28(1), 1‒17.

Convention on Biological Diversity. (2010). Generic and specific indicators for assessing progress in the attainment of the Aichi biodiversity targets, including an assessment of their main characteristics. Retrieved from https://www.cbd.int/doc/strategic-plan/strategic-plan-indicators-en.pdf

CSIRO. (2016). Indigenous seasons calendars. Retrieved from http://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Environment/Land-management/Indigenous/Indigenous-calendars

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1959). The Phenomenon of Man. New York, NY: Harper. Retrieved from http://www.heavysideindustries.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/


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