Guyana tries to save indigenous languages

by bert wilkinson

georgetown, oct 21 (ips) - university of guyana researcher desrey fox knows that with each passing day, the battle to save major amerindian languages is being lost, mainly through increased contact with english-speaking coastlanders, teachers and religous leaders.

preliminary research has shown that only a few elderly amerindians from carib and arawak hinterland reservations are still able to speak in their native tongues.

''a lot of young arawaks don't even bother to learn the language much less speak it because they attend schools where only english is taught and this has certainly not helped,'' said fox, an akawio from the western upper mazaruni district.

fox aims to change that situation by launching a national awareness campaign to preserve the languages.

the strategy is to lobby education officials and at the same time work on compiling a dictionary of the languages spoken by as many of the nine tribes here as possible. the tribes are spread throughout the hinterland of this english-speaking south american republic.

she heads the amerindian research unit at the university of guyana and is effectively the caribbean's best known authority on indigenous peoples.

indigenous peoples are the third largest ethnic group in guyana behind the descendants of east indians and africans. numbering an estimated 55,000 they account for seven percent of guyana's population.

fox said she will campaign to have the school curriculum in amerindian-dominated areas changed to include compulsory teaching of tribal languages, as a form of preserving an important aspect of indigenous culture.

''it is the only way the younger ones will learn. they have to learn to read and write it or we are wasting time,'' she said.

catholic priests working in the hinterland or on government- protected reservations have, from time to time, attempted to compile dictionaries, but little official support has made the task difficult, if not impossible.

some help has also come from other researchers, but it merely scratches the surface says leonard fredericks, an amerindian captain and school principal at the great falls district, 144 km south of this capital city.

in the meantime, village elders are being encouraged to formally pass on the languages to the younger generation, many of whom have fled to the city to enjoy the luxuries of modern living.

fox thinks there is some hope for language preservation but this is greatest in villages so remote that contact with coastlanders is at a minimum.

in the southwestern savannah region near the brazilian border the carib people there speak portuguese in addition to their native tongue.

however on the northcoast where this capital city is located and in central guyana, prime areas for mining and logging by multinational companies, the amerindians living there have virtually abandoned their culture and their languages.

fox says she plans to involve vibert desouza, the country's [article received incomplete]

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/* Written 11:03 am Oct 24, 1993 by in ips.english */

Copyright 1993 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
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