Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as Music.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s NY Times story is not your standard “saving the dying languages” piece (of which I’ve featured many over the years here at LH); in a sense, it’s not about the languages at all, but I thought it was interesting enough to post:

A growing number of [composers] are turning their attention to languages that are extinct, endangered or particular to tiny groups of speakers in far-flung places with the aim of weaving these enigmatic utterances into musical works that celebrate, memorialize or mourn the languages and the cultures that gave birth to them. On Saturday, April 9, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, the Australian composer Liza Lim unveils her opera “Tree of Codes,” which includes snippets of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain village. On her most recent album, “The Stone People,” the pianist Lisa Moore sings and plays Martin Bresnick’s hypnotic “Ishi’s Song,” a setting of a chant by the last member of the Yahi, who died in 1916.

In February the New York Philharmonic performed Tan Dun’s multimedia symphony “Nu Shu,” the result of the composer’s research into a language and writing system that was passed down among the female inhabitants of a small village in Hunan Province in China for 700 years. Other composers who have done their own fieldwork include Vivian Fung, who investigated minority cultures in the Chinese province of Yunnan, and Kevin James, who sought out some of the last native speakers of minority languages in the Pacific Northwest, Australia and Japan.

A humorous side note involves the following paragraph:

In a phone interview, Mr. Bresnick said it was a television documentary about Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, that inspired his work for piano and voice. He said he related the story to his mother, a fluent Yiddish speaker, who was then 94 years old. “I told her, ‘You’re my Ishi, you’re the last to speak this language,’” he said. “She pointedly looked at me and said: ‘No, you are. Because you still care to know.’”

I was reading rather hastily, and my first reaction was “Ishi’s mother was a fluent Yiddish speaker?!” But then I reread and all was clear.

I’m glad Fonseca-Wollheim mentioned “ethical questions of outsiders’ drawing financial benefit or prestige from such expeditions, or using the recorded voices of the dead in cultures where that is taboo,” and it’s important to consider such objections, but I’m glad the composers are going ahead and working with these languages; I will always lean toward favoring openness over secrecy. (Thanks, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. The last to speak yiddish?!!

  2. Maybe in that family? But yes, that is odd.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    My paternal grandmother claims her first language was Yiddish, and she’s a good deal younger than 94 (she was born in May 1941, so would be 75 this year).
    It’s typical for the last (few) speakers of a language to be very elderly, for some rather obvious reasons (Ishi was an exception – his language died out especially violently), and this seems to be where Yiddish is going. But it’s unlikely to get all the way to the “last few speakers” stage before 2040 or so (at the very earliest) – there are just too many.

  4. Jim (another one) says:

    “(Ishi was an exception – his language died out especially violently), ”

    It was already very restricted in range even at contact. The Maidu and then the Wintun had immigrated a couple of millennia before and left the Yana only a small area. The entire population was small and the Yahi-speaking subset of that even smaller.

  5. gwenllian says:

    It’s typical for the last (few) speakers of a language to be very elderly, for some rather obvious reasons (Ishi was an exception – his language died out especially violently), and this seems to be where Yiddish is going. But it’s unlikely to get all the way to the “last few speakers” stage before 2040 or so (at the very earliest) – there are just too many.

    Surely 2040 is way too early, given that there are still Orthodox communities raising children in Yiddish?

  6. I was reading rather hastily, …

    The kind of difficulty that your hasty reading created for you can be regarded as a species of what Daffy Duck called “pronoun trouble”. This has significance for me because it was a Google search for the phrase “pronoun trouble” that first brought me to the world of Languagehat.

  7. January First-of-May says:

    Surely 2040 is way too early, given that there are still Orthodox communities raising children in Yiddish?

    I wasn’t aware of that. If this is true, then, of course, 2040 is way to early.

    (Though given the speed of technology advancement, it is not certain that any human languages will survive much past 2040 in recognizable form – but the less common ones especially.)

    EDIT:
    The kind of difficulty that your hasty reading created for you can be regarded as a species of what Daffy Duck called “pronoun trouble”. This has significance for me because it was a Google search for the phrase “pronoun trouble” that first brought me to the world of Languagehat.

    This is even more common in Russian (as in the classic “Иван просил отца, чтобы он купил ему козла, чтобы он ездил на нём”), because even objects that would be “it” in English are referred to with appropriate gendered pronouns in Russian.

    (I think I found Language Hat from a comment on Language Log, incidentally.)

  8. gwenllian says:

    A few months ago I was watching Quebec movies, and I came across Felix and Meira

    I found it kind of underwhelming, but I really loved hearing Yiddish in a movie, especially spoken by a native speaker.

  9. Yiddish cannot die in the same sense as many of the world’s small languages. It is very well documented, including sound recordings. At worst, it can enter sort of “freeze-dried” stage.

  10. There are somewhere between 50k and 100k Satmar Hassidim alone who speak Yiddish as their primary language.
    Also check out this article in Der Forvarts:

    http://forward.com/culture/137578/for-the-modern-sholom-aleichem-click-on-this-blog/

Speak Your Mind

*