Language molds itself anew, folding in new words and phrases with each occupation, colonizer, generation, and time period. Growing up in the United States, I never questioned language nor its creation. Even though there are over 7,000 languages in the world (this is likely wildly underreported due to local dialects and indigenous languages not represented), I never wondered about the originsn or implications of mine. I simply didn’t realize the complexities of the ways our mother tongues raise us. While I only speak one fluent language, I’ve met dozens of locals across continents that speak 4-5 languages, self-taught at that. I’ve taken over ten years of Spanish classes, but never took initiative to stamp the accent onto my tongue, to maneauver through the complex verb tenses and master the varied vocabulary. I didn’t have to; the world has been whipped into holding English in higher regards than any other language. Most countries I’ve visited have English written under the local dialect on signs and menus, and if not, I usually don’t have to look too far before finding an English-speaker. Even still, English ranks third in the world for most spoken languages, behind Mandarin (1,197 million) and Spanish (406 million). Because of the naval-gazing nature of myself and many fellow Americans, most of us don’t see the value of putting in the work to learn another languge. This trip I’ve been amazed at the magic of languages – the intricacies of sentence structure, the expansive vocabularies, the overlaps that come from borrowing and stealing words from one another.
Take Indonesia, for example. There are over 700 languages spoken here currently, spanning across more than 17,500 islands. I can’t imagine how many languages were lost over time, smudged out and replaced by multiple colonial reigns. The Portuguese were the first to colonize this beautiful archipelago in the early 1500’s, followed by the French, British, Dutch, and Spaniards, all driven by profiting off the spice trade on the islands. The colonizers sought to spread Catholicism, following the familiar story of murdering indigenous bodies, languages, and cultures in the name of economic gain and political power. The Dutch colonized the islands for the longest period – 350 years of slavery, genocide, and profiting from local natural resources. Japan gained control of the islands from the Dutch in 1941, and maintained political control of the islands until Indonesia’s independence in 1945. The legacy of Dutch colonization is still present here, from the architexture of buildings to mixed-race descendents to the heavy presence of Dutch travelers, freely exploring the lands their great-grandparents terrorized with slavery and land seizures.
My first week here, I saw the word “gratis” often on street signs and advertisements. “Gratis” means free in Spanish, not in the sense of liberty (libre in Spanish), but in the “costs no money” sense. I finally asked a local about it, and she shared that the Netherlands was colonized by Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, so “gratis” was braided into the Dutch language, which made its way into the official Indonesian language of Bahasa during Dutch occupation. The root of “gratis” comes from Latin, and a similar word can be found in Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, French, Swedish, Portuguese, and Romanian. I think of the cost of this shared word – “gratis,” free. How many mother tongues were slain for this common thread?
I hear the word “colonize” so often here, I often forget its weight. I forget the violence, murder, rape, and genocide of culture and language that it signifies. I forget the depletion of local natural resources, the seizure of spices and coal and palm oil, the acres of rainforests that have been burnt down by multi-billion dollar corporations searching for palm oil for their cooking and cosmetic products. Back home, indigenous leaders are still fighting for independence from colonizers, protesting the construction of a $1.6 million telescope on sacred land in Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, the Dakota Pipeline pillaging natural resources in Standing Rock, the murders and rapes of indigenous women across the stolen soil known today as the United States of America. Colonization may start with a black boot on soil, a white man fancying himself an explorer, marveling at his “discovery” of sacred, already-lived-upon land. But when do the ripples of colonization grow quiet? What is truly “gratis” in this world? What is truly stolen? What is truly sacred?