Table of contents
Table of contents
Linguistic Anthropology
Unit 4

Language and Colonialism

Several uniformed students sit and write at their desks with their heads down.

Colonization has had a tremendous impact on Indigenous languages. In many cases, it has resulted in a decrease in the numbers of native language speakers, and, in some instances, language extinction. This unit will help students understand why and how colonial efforts targeted language in attempts to eradicate Indigenous cultures. Students will also learn about efforts to reinstate endangered languages and the effects of colonization on language politics today.

Professor Talking Points
  • European colonialism drastically affected the lives and cultures of Indigenous peoples the world over.
  • Colonialism made radical changes to Indigenous forms of governance, trade, material culture, religious practices, and identity.
  • These changes took place in many ways, but few would have persisted were it not for the forceful imposition of language, which required colonial subjects to adopt a European language and, frequently, to forget their own.
  • European colonialism facilitated Indigenous cultural destruction.
  • During colonialism, other languages were created as different groups of people interacted—for example, pidgins and creoles, some of which are now recognized as languages, such as Haitian Creole.
  • These processes also created new hierarchies of languages, pidgins, and creoles, whereby language became one way to define different groups of people and understand where they were positioned in sociopolitical hierarches.
  • Today the legacy of colonialism can be seen in the abysmally low numbers of native speakers of various Indigenous languages and in the remaining hierarchies still associated with certain ways of speaking.
  • A number of Indigenous groups are working to revive and save their languages. They continue to recognize the importance of language to cultural preservation.
Academic Articles
  1. Fenigsen, Janina. 2007. “From Apartheid to Incorporation: The Emergence and Transformations of Modern Language Community in Barbados, West Indies.” Pragmatics 17 (2): 231–261

  2. Irvine, Judith T. 2008. “Subjected Words: African Linguistics and the Colonial Encounter.” Language and Communication 28 (4): 323–343.

Student Discussion Questions
  1. Why is language so important to a culture?
  2. Why would a colonial power want to get rid of Indigenous languages?
  3. How did Guaraní become so widespread in Paraguay? Why did that happen, and how is that process different from what happened to Indigenous languages in other places?
  4. What do the Fenigsen (2007) article and the 2019 SAPIENS article by Frances Jenner tell us about the relationship between modern-day language hierarchies and colonialism?
  5. List the different strategies that are being used to aid language revival. What are some of the downfalls? Which have proven to be successful?
  • Have students watch PBS’ Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools. Then have them write down or discuss the ways in which language played a key role in reshaping Native American children during the boarding school era.
Additional Resources
  1. Article: The Nation’s “Language Is a ‘War Zone’

Unit By

Eshe Lewis (2020)

Linguistic Anthropology
Unit 5

Language and Power

A person in a cowboy hat bumps fists with a person in a khaki pants suit in front of a red and white flag.