Language is a central medium through which cultural systems operate. In the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Peoples’ Languages, the vast majority of these languages are at risk of losing their vitality, with some already gone to sleep. The precarity of indigenous languages is closely related to the sociopolitical physical conditions in which many indigenous peoples live. In the case of indigenous Bunong peoples in Cambodia, Vietnam and now diaspora, the last two decades alone have witnessed the rapid expropriation of what was traditional Bunong lands, territories and resources, and their transformation into zones of extractive industries and transmigrant re-settlement, with minimal regard for Bunong cultural well-being or land rights. Similar scenarios are observable in other indigenous territories around the world. While an account of these transformations helps explain the pressures facing Bunong speech communities, it does not attend to the agency of members in selecting whether or not to transmit the language to their children. The concept of language shift offers an ethnographic lens to focus on the local dynamics that lead to speakers selecting to no longer speak their language. Through a better understanding of speakers’ agency, we may gain insight into not only language loss but discover possible mechanisms for its vitalization.
Neal Keating is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at the College of Brockport, State University of New York.