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.