What is lost when a language goes silent?
Today, I suggest that you set aside fifteen minutes to read National Geographic‘s new article, “Vanishing Voices” by Russ Rymer. It’s an elegant and fascinating read that explores many of the questions surrounding endangered languages: why do some small languages die, while others manage to soldier steadily on? Which facets of any language are untranslatable and/or invaluable, and what insight could they offer? Why does it matter?
Rymer doesn’t answer all the questions he brings up — nobody could — but he does an excellent job of highlighting the state of the field and the many factors at play, using a complex fact- and story-based narrative. I’ve rambled about this topic before, and I can only hope to express my thoughts as cogently as he has, someday. While I come pre-equipped with vehement interest in this topic, I suspect that his article might be able to spark interest in even the most indifferent reader.
He focuses on three main groups of people, all of whom speak an endangered and/or small language: the Tuvan of Siberia, the Aka of India, and the Seri of Mexico. He also highlights the efforts and methods of linguists who have worked with these groups (including K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, an organization for which I gleefully volunteer).
Here are two excerpts from the article. In the first, he describes how the process of speaking a new language can create an entirely different way of interacting with and existing within the world:
“Speaking Aka—or any language—means immersing oneself in its character and concepts. ‘I’m seeing the world through the looking glass of this language,’ said Father Vijay D’Souza, who was running the Jesuit school in Palizi at the time of my visit. The Society of Jesus established the school in part because it was concerned about the fragility of the Aka language and culture and wanted to support them (though classes are taught in English). D’Souza is from southern India, and his native language is Konkani. When he came to Palizi in 1999 and began speaking Aka, the language transformed him.
“’It alters your thinking, your worldview,” he told me one day in his headmaster’s office, as children raced to classes through the corridor outside. One small example: mucrow. A similar word in D’Souza’s native language would be an insult, meaning ‘old man.’ In Aka ‘mucrow’ means something more. It is a term of respect, deference, endearment. The Aka might address a woman as mucrow to indicate her wisdom in civic affairs, and, says D’Souza, ‘an Aka wife will call her husband mucrow, even when he’s young,’ and do so affectionately.”
Another of my academic passions is ethnobotany. Thus, I found the next excerpt especially compelling, in which Rymer illustrates one of the most practical, cogent reasons why language extinction is a problem:
“The ongoing collapse of the world’s biodiversity is more than just an apt metaphor for the crisis of language extinction. The disappearance of a language deprives us of knowledge no less valuable than some future miracle drug that may be lost when a species goes extinct. Small languages, more than large ones, provide keys to unlock the secrets of nature, because their speakers tend to live in proximity to the animals and plants around them, and their talk reflects the distinctions they observe. When small communities abandon their languages and switch to English or Spanish, there is a massive disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations—about medicinal plants, food cultivation, irrigation techniques, navigation systems, seasonal calendars. […]
Cmiique Iitom [spoken by the Seris] has terms for more than 300 desert plants, and its names for animals reveal behaviors that scientists once considered farfetched. The Seri word for harvesting eelgrass clued scientists in to the sea grass’s nutritional merits. (Its protein content is about the same as wheat’s.) The Seris call one sea turtle moosni hant cooit, or green turtle that descends, for its habit of hibernating on the floor of the sea, where the traditional fishermen used to harpoon it. “We were skeptical when we first learned from the Seri Indians of Sonora, Mexico, that some Chelonia are partially buried on the sea floor during the colder months,” stated a 1976 paper in Science documenting the behavior. “However, the Seri have proved to be highly reliable informants.” The Seris enjoyed eating sea turtles but not leatherbacks, for a simple reason. Leatherbacks, they say, understand their language and are Seri themselves. In 2005 the Seri name for shark, hacat, became the official name for a newly discovered species of smooth-hound shark, Mustelus hacat. Newly discovered by modern scientists, that is—the Seris had been aware of them for years.”