The tragedy of dying languages





The death of the last speaker of an ancient language in India's Andaman Islands highlights the fact that half of the world's 7,000 languages are in danger of disappearing. Linguist K David Harrison argues that we still have much to learn from vanishing languages.

My journey as a scientist exploring the world's vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald's in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I've listened to last speakers - dignified elders - who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity's intellectual wealth.

Though it belongs solely to them and has inestimable value to their people, they do not hoard it. In fact they are often eager to share it. What can we learn from these languages before they go extinct? And why should we lift a finger to help rescue them?

As the last speakers converse, they spin individual strands in a vast web of knowledge, a noosphere of possibilities. They tell how their ancestors calculated accurately the passing of seasons without clocks or calendars. How humans adapted to hostile environments, from the Arctic to Amazonia.

We imagine eureka moments taking place in modern laboratories or classical civilizations. But key insights of biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation arose and persisted solely by word of mouth, in small, unwritten tongues. Finally, this web of knowledge contains feats of human ingenuity -epics, myths, rituals - that celebrate and interpret our existence.

Pundits argue that linguistic differences are little more than random drift, minor variations in meaning and pronunciation that emerge over time (the British say 'lorry', Americans 'truck'; Tuesday is CHEWS-day, for Brits, TOOZ-day for Americans).

These reveal nothing interestingly different about our souls or minds, some claim. But that's like saying that the Pyramid of Cheops differs from Notre Dame Cathedral only by stone-cutting techniques that evolved randomly in different times and places; revealing nothing unique in the ancient Egyptian or Medieval French imagination.

All cultures encode their genius in verbal monuments, while considerably fewer do so in stone edifices. We might as well proclaim human history banal, and human genius of no value to our survival.

The fate of languages is interlinked with that of species, as they undergo parallel extinctions. Scientific knowledge is comparable for both domains, with an estimated 80% of plant and animal species unknown to science, and 80% of languages yet to be documented.

But species and ecosystems unknown to science are well-known to local people, whose languages encode not only names for things, but also complex interrelations among them.

Packaged in ways that resist direct translation, this knowledge dissipates when people shift to speaking global tongues. What the Kallawaya of Bolivia know about medicinal plants, how the Yupik of Alaska name 99 distinct sea ice formations, how the Tofa of Siberia classify reindeer. Entire domains of ancient knowledge, only scantily documented, are rapidly eroding.

Linguistic survivors hold the fates of languages in their minds and mouths.

Johnny Hill, Jr of the Chemehuevi tribe of Arizona is a big, imposing man, but he instantly wins people over with his gentle humility. Designated "last speaker" of Chemehuevi, Johnny achieved celebrity in the 2008 documentary film The Linguists.

Although he had never previously travelled far from his reservation or flown on an airplane, Johnny mesmerized film festival-goers with his life story. Raised by his grandmother who spoke only Chemehuevi, Johnny learned English at school seeking a path out of isolation.

At the other end of his lifespan, Johnny finds himself linguistically isolated once again. "I have to talk to myself," he explains resignedly. "There's nobody left to talk to, all the elders have passed on, so I talk to myself... that's just how it is."

Johnny has tried to teach his children and others in the tribe. "Trouble is," he sighs, "they say they want to learn it, but when it comes time to do the work, nobody comes around."

Speakers react differently to loss - from indifference to despair - and adopt diverse strategies. Some blame governments or globalization, others blame themselves. Around the world, a growing wave of language activists works to revitalize their threatened tongues. Positive attitudes are the single most powerful force keeping languages alive, while negative ones can doom them.

Two dozen language hotspots have now been identified globally, and new technologies are being mobilised to the cause.

A Torres Straits' Islander in Australia told me: "Our language is standing still, we need to make it relevant to today's society. We need to create new words, because right now we can't say 'computer'."

The lowly text message may lift obscure tongues to new levels of prestige, translated software may help them cross the digital divide. Hip-hop performed in threatened tongues, as I've heard among young Aka speakers in India, infuses new vitality.

Language revitalisation will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades. This push-back against globalization will profoundly influence human intellectual life, deciding the fate of ancient knowledge.

What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers? What they know - which we've forgotten or never knew - may some day save us.

We hear their voices, now muted, sharing knowledge in 7,000 different ways of speaking. Let's listen while we still can.




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