Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Languages Dying

Via a pair of articles in the NY Times and the Washington Post, we learn that researchers expect half the languages in the world to die by the end of the century, and these researchers are also doing their best to preserve a record of these languages as the last speakers of them die off one by one. The Washington Post article reveals this interesting fact:

Oklahoma has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the five worst "language-loss hotspots" in the world -- places where native languages are going extinct the fastest -- according to an analysis released yesterday.

The Sooner State's inclusion in the global top five is a reminder, researchers said, that the United States has a long history of linguistic diversity and that the problem of language extinctions is not limited to distant lands.

The languages disappearing in Oklahoma are of course the various languages of Native American peoples, languages which have suffered grave attrition over the last century and a half as tribes were removed, destroyed, assimilated or otherwise rendered incapable of preserving their native tongues. A movement is afoot now to preserve those languages, especially by many smaller tribes that have reason to fear their ultimate fate (though larger tribes like the Cherokee also have efforts underway to teach tribal members their native tongue.) Of course, one can ask the question, why preserve these languages? What would be so bad about more and more people speaking the same language and removing an element that divides us from each other?
It's a fair question, but language is not merely a tool. Rather, it is a representation of how the speakers of that language feel about themselves and the world they live in. The loss of each language then is not only the loss of a way of speaking, but also a way of thinking. Here's a quote from one of the researchers mentioned in the Post article:

"It may seem frivolous, but mythological traditions are attempts to make sense of the universe, and the different ways that the human mind has tried to grapple with the unknown and the unknowable are of scientific interest," he said.

And this, from a Professor working to preserve the "click" languages of the African Khoisan speakers:

"There is a lot of knowledge tied up in language," Sands said. "Language is an important source of knowledge about one's heritage. Can you imagine being part of an ethnic group that has no information about its own history or language?"

Indeed. There are many expressions in English that "say" more than the idea that the mere words attempt to convey. Words tell us not only what something is, but also convey the concepts that allow us to understand what it is that's being referred to, and the speaker's word choice can convey something beyond a mere description of the concept utilized. As an example, take the name of the Cherokee people. This name was conveyed upon the Cherokee by the Creek, for whom it meant "speakers of another language" and it is written as Tsalagi in the Cherokee language. But the name the Cherokee gave themselves was Aniyunwiya, meaning "the principal people." All three of these words refer to the same thing, the Cherokee people, but all convey something quite different (and which term the speaker chooses to use also conveys a message.)

Language preserves more than words. It preserves concepts, history, and mythology. Natives in Oklahoma and throughout the world are doing their best to preserve their own languages, but it's a difficult task in a modern world where assimilation-for all its benefits-all too often means the death of human knowledge.

No comments: