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Brazil’s National Museum Fire Endangers Indigenous Languages”

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Brazil’s National Museum Fire Endangers Indigenous Languages”

In Brazil’s National Museum fire, languages burned along with tangibles. The only records of some Brazilian indigenous languages burned. For most records, there were no digital backups. Their absence is eternal. So are the indigenous languages they described.

Genocide Lost Languages

This language loss is colonial, like most. Since 1500, outsiders have slaughtered, displaced, and enslaved Brazilians. Infectious sickness or murder killed millions from thousands of ethnic and linguistic groupings. The survivors lost their houses, resources, and land.

Genocide involves language loss. The threatened groups’ languages are nonsense, so it’s easier to govern if just the colonizer’s is spoken. These facts are not unique to Brazil because all of the Americas were colonised.

Recording Indigenous Languages

About 200 remained in 1997. Many lost languages were undocumented. Language documentation describes how a language is used. Language documentation was documented in phonetic descriptions, word lists, phrases, and sometimes fiction before tape recorders or wax cylinders.

Modern language documentary materials use audio and video recordings for more detail, information, and accuracy than writing. Linguists used to lack archiving resources and standards. Since 2011, all endangered language documentary material must be archived for National Science Foundation grantees.

Sleeping Languages

Language documentation can help communities reclaim their languages, but nothing can substitute a strong community with speakers of all ages. Instead of ‘dead languages,’ prefer ‘sleeping’ or ‘dormant’ languages.

This sleeping metaphor shows how heritage speakers might revive their language. A sleeping language might wake up. A language can be spoken again and undocumented holes filled imaginatively with enough documentation.

For centuries, Hebrew has no native speakers. Hebrew revived from 1882 to 1922 and is now a national language spoken by millions.

Indigenous North American languages are reclaimed and revitalised by their communities using archival documents at the ‘Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous California Languages’ and ‘National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages’ in alternate years.

Indigenous groups that desire to revive languages that are no longer spoken but have written or aural record need archives like the California Language Archive or the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America. Due to the risk of losing physical documentation, archives are digitising.

This is costly and time-consuming, but important to prevent losses like Brazil’s.

Memory of the World Map by UNESCO

The museum’s linguist Bruna Franchetta said part of the language collection was being digitised. She may have been alluding to the Curt Nimuendajú Digital Library, which has digital documents on South American languages and cultures.

The eponymous ethnographer’s huge digital collection includes a mid-1940s map of indigenous Brazilian languages and their spoken locations. The map is a UNESCO Memory of the World landmark; a beautifully restored digital version can be viewed and downloaded here.

The fire destroyed the original map and everything else. According to Diogo Almeida, Brazilian researcher Cinda Gonda said:

People, the Linguistics division is gone. The indigenous languages collection, including recordings and chants, was lost, along with the Curt Niemuendajú archives from 1945. The archive included papers, photos, negatives, and the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map of Brazil’s ethnic groups.

The ethnological and archaeological references of all Brazilian ethnic groups since the 16th century… Our historical memory irreparably lost. Seeing everything in ashes hurts so much.”

The National Museum’s linguistic documentation was not yet being used for language reclaiming or revitalization. That’s impossible now that the documentation is gone.

Unreparable Loss

Fossils, artwork, archaeological artefacts, animal specimens, and more were lost in the National Museum fire and could not be digitally preserved. However, language documentation may have been digitally stored to prevent loss. With funding and resources, researchers could have digitised their materials and prevented language loss.

Some indigenous Brazilian languages’ data may be archived elsewhere, but most of the National Museum’s linguistic content was unique. The destruction of these records is final language death. Dormant languages died in sleep while Brazil’s National Museum burnt.

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