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Open Manifesto

Language and identity.

A conversation between Dr. Knut J. Olawsky and K.F.

{8th of June 2009}


A number of cultural factors represent countries and nations, but how important is the role of language in identity and how important is it to preserve native languages?


All people communicate and they do this primarily in their mother-tongue. Language is an essential part of our human nature—what we are is reflected in our language and in reverse the way we speak influences our very existence—what we think and what we are. Thus, our identity directly depends on our language (and vice versa).


In other words: our language is defined by the environment we live in, including nature, culture and social structures.

To give you an example: I grew up in Germany with German as my first language. Believe it or not, some concepts of German culture cannot be translated directly into English or other languages. They need to be “explained” using a whole string of words. This heritage will always follow me as my thinking patterns are embedded in my native culture and language.


If we lose our language, the link to this environment will be affected. How would we keep our culture alive if we didn’t have the words to describe it? Why would certain species matter to us if we couldn’t name them? How should social structure stay intact if the words we use in daily life don’t reflect them any more? This is why it is important to preserve languages. The great diversity of different languages is a treasure humankind cannot afford to lose.


(The rest of this article is available, in print, in Open Manifesto #5)


Dr. Knut J. Olawsky is a specialist in field linguistics, language documentation and endangered languages and has published grammars of Dagbani (Ghana) and Urarina (Peru). In his role as senior linguist and coordinator of the Mirima Language Centre he is engaged in the revitalisation of the Miriwoong language of the East Kimberley region (Northwestern Australia).

His academic background includes a PhD from Duesseldorf (Germany) as well as postdoctoral positions at the University of California, Berkeley (1999-2000) and at La Trobe University (Melbourne; 2000-2005) where he was an ELDP [Endangered Languages Documentation Programme—London] fellow (2003-2005). While his commitment to the Miriwoong people involves a range of non-academic tasks, he stays connected to the academic world through casual teaching. He also delivers related presentations internationally.