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Endangered Languages, Knowledge Systems and Belief Systems

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David Hirsh

Many of the world’s 7000 documented language groups are endangered due to falling rates of language and culture transmission from one generation to the next. Some endangered language groups have been the focus of efforts to reverse patterns of linguistic and cultural loss, with variable success. This book presents case studies of endangered language groups from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific (including Bisu, Iban, Iquito, Quechua, Wawa, Yi and sign languages) and of their associated knowledge and belief systems, to highlight the importance of preserving linguistic and cultural diversity. Issues of identity and pride emerge within the book, alongside discussion of language and culture policy.

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7. Belief systems 111

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7. Belief systems Traditional belief systems are typically associated with animism and the existence of a spiritual world. They relate to perceptions about the human relationship with the natural and physical worlds, and form the foundation for social rules and practice. Common themes are respect for the natural world and the importance of spiritual beliefs in the construction of personal identity (see Bird-David 1999; Harvey 2005; Willerslev 2007). A belief system can be thought of in terms of the values of a community. A belief system can also be thought of in terms of the explanations a community has arrived at for perplexing questions such as where humans come from, what created the world and the universe, what controls the weather, plant and animal life, what controls the physical world, and what accounts for natural disasters. Belief systems can describe the behavior, customs and ritual practices of a community at symbolic times. This could be related to agricultural cycles of planting and harvesting, human fertility, key stages in life such as initiation rites, or in response to sickness, death, or conflict. It could be associated with reinforcing kinship ties. Belief systems, like knowledge systems, are not static. They change and evolve to reflect the needs of the community of users. Spiritual practices once deemed appropriate may one day be viewed as inappropriate and abandoned. Ritual practices once deemed central to daily life may one day lose their relevance. Generational gaps can develop within a community whereby younger members arrive at...

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