VANISHING VOICES.

A nice National Geographic piece by Russ Rymer that asks the question “What is lost when a language goes silent?” As Paul, who sent me the link (thanks, Paul!), said, there’s no breaking news here, but there are some interesting observations (along with the by now obligatory mention of Pirahã and its lack of numerical terms). Here’s a bit on the Seri language of northwestern Mexico:

What modern luxuries the Seris have adopted are imported without their Spanish names. Automobiles, for instance, have provoked a flurry of new words. A Seri car muffler is called ihíisaxim an hant yaait, or into which the breathing descends, and the Seri term for distributor cap associates it with an electric ray that swims in the Gulf of California and gives you a shock. Such words are like ocotillo canes stuck into the sand: The Cmiique Iitom lexicon is alive, and as it grows, it creates a living fence around the culture.
Sitting in the shade of an awning in front of his house, René Montaño told me stories of an ancient race of giants who could step over the sea from their home on Tiburon Island to the mainland in a single stride. He told me of hant iiha cöhacomxoj, those who have been told about Earth’s possessions, all ancient things. “To be told” entails an injunction: Pass it on. Thanks to that, we have all become inheritors of the knowledge enshrined within Cmiique Iitom. Folk sayings and often even single words encase centuries of close observation of species that visiting scientists have only begun to study in recent decades.

I know some people think it’s silly to try to preserve endangered languages, but I’m not one of them, and I always enjoy reading accounts like this.

Comments

  1. I wonder if the Google initiative will make a difference.
    http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/

  2. dearieme says:

    I rather like the old joke:
    “What’s the Welsh word for television?”
    “Well, what’s the English word for television?”

  3. Ryukyuan languages
    This thesis is a descriptive grammar of Irabu Ryukyuan (Irabu henceforth), a Southern
    Ryukyuan language spoken on Irabu, which is one of the Miyako Islands, Okinawa,
    Japan. Irabu is an endangered Japonic language, with approximately 2,000 to 2,500
    native speakers. This thesis serves as the first descriptive grammar of this language and
    of any particular Miyako Ryukyuan language.
    http://www.geocities.jp/skippingbird76/index.Japanese.html
    Papers (those with an English description are in English)
    http://www.geocities.jp/skippingbird76/grammar.j.htm
    Sounds
    http://www.geocities.jp/skippingbird76/phoneticpage.htm

  4. @dearieme:
    Ha ha and good point …it’s ‘teledu’ if anyone’s wondering?

  5. Well…this is a tough one. On one hand, I think it’s worth documenting the language but I don’t know that it’s really worth forcing anyone (children) to learn how to speak it if it’s not going to be of much use to them and they don’t want to. I know that some places attempt to preserve their endangered language by making kids learn it in school, and I kind of have a problem with that: I don’t think they should be forced to learn it if their day-to-day interactions are going to be conducted in another language (for example, English) and you just want them to learn it in order to keep the language around for posterity’s sake. Make it an elective if you like, but don’t make people learn it just to keep it ‘alive’ (that’s not really alive, to be honest, since they won’t use it outside of class).
    I’d document it for historical purposes, but beyond that I’m inclined to say just let natural selection take its course and if the language isn’t useful enough to warrant learning/speaking and it dies, then it dies. Let it.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  6. dearieme says:

    “I don’t know that it’s really worth forcing anyone (children) to learn how to speak it …”: quite right – that’d be horribly prescriptivist, than which ….

  7. if it’s not going to be of much use to them
    There are many different kinds of usefulness, and it’s hard to predict what kids will make of what you give them. I speak Yiddish to my kids. It’s not as endangered as all that but it’s certainly not of great geopolitical or economic importance. However, literature and culture are of “use” as well.
    And, yes, coercion is certainly involved when I make my kids answer in the language. But parenting involves plenty of coercion anyway.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure what to make of the pop-Whorfianism that seems ubiquitous in these claims that losing a language is a loss to the world-at-large in an other-than-aesthetic sense (which is not to say the aesthetic loss is nothing). Does Tuvan really have untranslatable words/concepts? Or just not-yet-translated words/concepts, because they refer to culture-specific objects or practices (but in the event the community changed its language could be taken over into Russian or whatever as a loanword or calque)? The specialized local knowledge of particular indigenous people of the local flora/fauna is presumably more fundamentally at risk if modernity/globalization/whatever changes their overall way of life (I assume the average Middle English speaker knew a lot more about the alleged medicinal benefits of various plants that grew in England in those days than I do; I know more about the alleged medicinal benefits of various chemical compounds unknown in those days), but it is hard to know how to preserve those traditional ways of pre-modern life without treating the human beings who live in those cultures as zoo animals to be fenced off from the outside world.

  9. “Does Tuvan really have untranslatable words/concepts? Or just not-yet-translated words/concepts, because they refer to culture-specific objects or practices (but in the event the community changed its language could be taken over into Russian or whatever as a loanword or calque)?’
    Well, did Greek have words/concepts that were untranslateable inot latin. Yeah, initially. It took time though. Did Latin have words/concepts that were untranslateable into AS when Alfred wanted the NT translated. Yes.
    Look at the contortions and controversies translators go though trying to translate Genji into English. There the lack of one-to-one matches for specific lexical items is only the beginning of the agony. Yes, English translations of Tang poems are worthwhile – as a crib sheet for actually reading the poems, because that’s all the closer those translations will ever come.
    “if it’s not going to be of much use to them
    There are many different kinds of usefulness, and it’s hard to predict what kids will make of what you give them. I speak Yiddish to my kids. It’s not as endangered as all that but it’s certainly not of great geopolitical or economic importance. However, literature and culture are of “use” as well.”
    Bang on the money, Zackary. Language is a marker of membership, even within one language. That’s why slang morphs so fast – the minute a term becomes mainstream, it’s compromised and has to be superseded. Language is a from of gang colors, only much deeper and more permanent. The Irish have quite a history around language as politics, and they have a very apt expression that sums it up – “Gan teanga, gan tír” – no language, no country/nation.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    T’ang-era Middle Chinese, Anglo-Saxon and (to a large extent) Latin are doing worse than Tuvan in terms of native speakers these days. Yet one does not see the same sort of handwringing about languages evolving to the point where the prior version is functionally extinct as one does for the possible loss of Tuvan or Seri etc. If anything, people who worry about the loss of comprehensibility over centuries because of language change are often viewed as fuddy-duddy prescriptivists engaged in a futile Canute-like project.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2007/jan/05/ireland.features is a comical-and/or-sad account of someone trying to actually get around Ireland w/ very mixed success (including dealing with personnel in government offices) speaking only Gaelic.

  11. There are many different kinds of usefulness, and it’s hard to predict what kids will make of what you give them. I speak Yiddish to my kids.
    Language is a marker of membership.
    I’m delighted that I had the opportunity to absorb a good chunk of Yiddish as a child. It conferred membership but it also gave me access to places otherwise denied.
    Where my interlocutor also knows Yiddish, we can enrich conversation by inserting an occasional Yiddish phrase in non-Yiddish dialogue. I get by at a pleasing if rudimentary level in German-speaking countries. I’ve ridden in Istanbul taxis speaking my broken Yiddish to taxi drivers who knew no English but had been Gastarbeiter in Germany. And it once made my day in Moscow’s Yaroslavl Station when I, with no Russian, managed to converse for half an hour with an Uzbek who knew no English but had served with the Red Army for two years in East Germany. A traveler’s Russian dictionary helped and so did gestures, but that’s not the point.
    When I lived in Canada I was appalled but also saddened whenever I encountered the defiantly monolingual. Flies in vinegar.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: T’ang-era Middle Chinese, Anglo-Saxon and (to a large extent) Latin are doing worse than Tuvan in terms of native speakers these days. Yet one does not see the same sort of handwringing about languages evolving to the point where the prior version is functionally extinct as one does for the possible loss of Tuvan or Seri etc. If anything, people who worry about the loss of comprehensibility over centuries because of language change are often viewed as fuddy-duddy prescriptivists engaged in a futile Canute-like project.
    The two situations are hardly comparable. Ancient Greek, etc have evolved continuously over the centuries, and the classical versions in which literary masterpieces were written were themselves the products of centuries of evolution, not just individually but more or less in step with less prestigious varieties (I don’t think anyone is pining for PIE).
    Do many people really worry about the state of English five hundred years from now? Jonathan Smith thought that the English of his day was at its peak, a thing of beauty and perfection, and should therefore be preserved intact through generations, but no doubt many writers before and after him have also considered the language of their own time the peak of perfection. In any case, the English of five hundred years ago is not impossible to understand and to appreciate. Anglo-Saxon is a different case, since the language, like the society that spoke it, was subjected to massive disruption and foreign influence over a long period of time. Nevertheless, the language did not dieappear, it adapted, because it was spoken throughout the country, and the new reigning power did not compel everyone to learn its language.
    A language which is the normal medium of communication of a speech community is spoken by approximately four generations at a time, and although each generation has made its own contributions (both through innovating and through forgetting), yet the people are all conscious of speaking the same language and any linguistic obstacles to communication are soon resolved through repeating, restating, paraphrasing, questioning, etc.
    For endangered languages such as Seri (or even Irish), spoken by a small population, normal transmission from parents to children in the course of everyday communication within families has been interrupted, usually because schooling in the overwhelmingly dominant language of the country (sometimes taking children away from their families) disrupted family and community life, and in the next generation billngual parents decided to raise their children in the dominant language. These children may understand some of their grandparents’ language, but they are unable to use it themselves, let alone pass it on to their own children in the course of family life. This means that instead of the same language being spoken (with slight differences) by four generations, over time only the oldest generation remains able to use its own language, and as its members pass away, no one is left alive who can speak the language. The community is split, not just between older and youngere speakers, but between older speakers of one language and younger speakers of another, so that the generation gap is much more severe than in a society where all ages speak the same language to each other (although some or even many of them may have become bilingual). The split between generations also means that whatever culturally important customs and information were traditionally passed on are in danger of being forgotten, or greatly reduced in significance. The old people feel helpless because they cannot pass it on, so that their former status as keepers of traditional knowledge is not respected, while at least some of the young people also feel helpless because they cannot truly communicate with the old people and learn the traditional knowledge, about the territory and the way to survive in it, the beliefs, history, legends, etc. Besides this traditional knowledge, there is also the shared identity and sense of belonging together and to the traditional land that is being eroded.
    From a social and psychological point of view, that is the real tragedy of the loss of languages. Telling people “forget your language, it is useless, speak ours instead” is a little like saying “forget your mother, love my mother instead”.
    From a scholarly point of view, different languages offer not only different ways of categorizing the world, including one’s experiences in it, through words but of organizing one’s thoughts through syntax. Each language also contains clues to its origins (through resemblances with related languages) but also to the history of the speech community through the existence of borrowings or neologisms for new things and concepts. All these may be learned from the study of various records, but studying a language through those means is sort of like studying animal behaviour through fossils or taxidermy specimens. The life once lost can never be retrieved.

  13. m-l has the right of it.
    By the way, m-l, it doesn’t affect your theme, but did you mean Jonathan Swift rather than Smith? If so, he was three hundred years ago, not five.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    iakon: (blushing) I thought Smith looked sort of odd on the page, but did not think about it any further since, as you say, it did not affect my theme. I meant the one and only Jonathan Swift, he of Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal.

  15. stormboy says:

    I actually read it as ‘Swift’.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    very nice of you, stormboy!

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