Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Coincidences are worth twice the context in which they arrive. So it is with the Aymara language, which has frequently appeared in my field of vision recently. With perhaps two million speakers, Aymara is one of a select few Native American languages still in widespread use and it's spoken primarily in Bolivia and Peru.

One of the unique characteristics of the language is the way in which it posits the speakers position in time relative to events past, present and future. English visualises and conceptualises the future as ahead of the speaker (what lies before us) and the past at our backs (all that is behind us). Our ego moves forward into the future.

The Aymara visualise time in quite the opposite way, viewing the past as laid out in front of us and the future trailing away behind us. The future is known as 'back days' and often indicated with gestures positioning the future behind the speaker.

Behind Aymaran people and speakers in the future is, one hopes, a greater connection to voices from all over the world. One of the newest Global Voices Lingua sites is in Aymara and an initiative of the Jaqi Aru project of El Alto, Bolivia. It's goal is to increase the amount of information available on the internet in order to promote and preserve this indigenous langauge.

Translating current affairs from around the globe into Aymara is no easy task however – many words, especially relating to technology, simply don't exist. Tools like the libre project Runasimipi Quespisqa Software help in this regard by allowing communities to build a consensus around new words and their translation.

How they will relate to these world events would be another area of interest, if claims by linguistic experts Eve Sweetser and Rafael Nunez are true.
A "simple" unqualified statement like "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" is not possible in Aymara – the sentence would necessarily also have to specify whether the speaker had personally witnessed this or was reporting hearsay In a culture that privileges a distinction between seen/unseen – and known/unknown – to such an extent as to weave "evidential" requirements inextricably into its language, it makes sense to metaphorically place the known past in front of you, in your field of view, and the unknown and unknowable future behind your back.
With so many speakers, Aymara is not under threat, but their particular view of time, as it becomes infused with the dominant Spanish of its spoken regions, is. Global Voices' project hopefully shows that globalisation does not have to mean homogenisation, but rather that greater interconnectivity can indeed sustain cultural identity.

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