Foundation for Endangered Languages

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1. Endangered Languages - Lost Worlds

A slightly longer version of this first appeared in Contemporary Review (December 2001), PO Box 1242, Oxford OX1 4FJ, England.

Being among the Last Speakers of your language has never been such a common plight. 1,700 of the world’s languages are list as being down to fewer than thousand speakers, over 550 to fewer than a hundred. At the last count, 150 languages were said to have fewer than ten speakers, most of them in Australia and North America. Things are moving very fast in our generation. According to Bob Dixon, in 1963 the Dyirbal language in northern Queensland was spoken by the whole community over the age of 35, amounting to 100 people. Now only 6 people over 65 know it. Tony Woodbury reports that in the village of Chevak, Alaska, in 1978, almost everyone spoke Chup’ik, a dialect of Yup’ik Eskimo; by 1996 it had died out among school children.

Here in Europe, even though the number of languages per unit of area is much lower than in any other continent (so there are fewer languages to lose) we still see the same phenomenon: Manx, the language of the Isle of Man, lost its last native speaker in 1974; and in a survey of Breton undertaken in western Brittany in 1997 (TMO-Ouest), 20% of the population said they spoke Breton — but only 6% of those under 40 said they spoke it; and less than 1% of those under 20.

The poignancy of these losses has never been to the fore in the minds of many speakers of widespread languages, when they hear that smaller languages are going out of use. Once there was the triumphalism of Empire that justified the loss. Antonio de Nebrija, presenting the first grammar of Spanish to Queen Isabel in 1492, wrote it could be used by “those many barbarous nations of foreign language put under the Spanish yoke, to receive the laws which the conqueror imposes on the conquered and with them our language.” (Preface, folio 3 verso.) 178 years later in 1770, with an Empire at his command that Nebrija could never have imagined — since whole new continents had been discovered in the interim —, the Spanish King Carlos III yielded to the urging of the Archbishop of Mexico, and issued a Royal Decree banning the different languages used in the Americas and requiring sole use of Spanish.

The same effect could arise from enthusiasm for Europe’s science as much as its religion.. The East India Company was committed by its Charter Act of 1813 to promote a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British Territories in India. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay ensured that this was interpreted as the promotion of European literature and science, and the medium of Indian education henceforth should be English; support was withdrawn from the indigenous Sanskrit.

Nowadays, the same trend is defended on more pragmatic, even utilitarian and humanistic grounds. “Think of the convenience”, say the apologists for large languages; “how much easier it will be for people to communicate, and share their insights with one other.” They point to the fact that cultural and economic aspirations play a big part, nowadays, in people’s voluntary flight from the language of their homes to Spanish, French and above all, English.

There is the example, famous among linguists but typical of language attitudes all over the world, of one speaker of Dahalo, a language spoken by a few hundred people in rural Kenya. When asked in 1991 by the linguist Peter Ladefoged if his sons spoke Dahalo, he proudly denied it: they spoke only Swahili. He saw this as being a part of Kenya’s future. One could find similar stories from northern Queensland, the shores of the Amazon, or indeed the west coast of Ireland: anywhere in the world where small language communities are in contact with a prestige group, usually much larger than them, that speaks another language.

And, if they are historically informed, language sceptics may claim that this process of extinction is nothing new, perhaps inseparable from the human condition. We know that the Middle East of 5000 years ago was using a variety of unrelated languages, Hurrian, Egyptian, Sumerian, Elamite, Hittite, and Akkadian, where for the last 1000 years there has been nothing but Arabic and Persian. We know that, since 3000 BC in central southern Africa, Bantu has spread out (from Cameroun) and extinguished the (presumed, because totally lost) Pygmy languages, and almost eliminated the Hottentot and Bushman languages. In fact, wherever we look today and see vast areas under a single language, Mandarin Chinese, say, or Arabic, we suspect that we are seeing the results of previous language extinctions, where once there were dozens of languages. Certainly, in the last 500 years, we have seen populations around the world succumb to European domination, and their languages often replaced wholesale, by Spanish and Portuguese in Central and South America, by Russian in North Asia, by English in North America, the Pacific and Australia.

This is just the tale of the last 5,000 years, a mere 5% of the time we think human languages have been around. Language extinctions have probably always been part of the history of Man, as peoples strayed onto others’ territory, and tribes clashed or merged. Nevertheless, this time it is different. In the past, human communities have been small enough, and human communications puny enough, to leave considerable diversity in the world. Now, the domain of expansive modern languages is the whole world. A global common language is within reach: most likely on current form to be English — although Mandarin Chinese still has three native speakers for every one of English; and in modern conditions a couple of generations can change the world, and its prospects, beyond recognition .

In these conditions, we have good reason to be concerned for the future survival of language diversity. Whatever is carried by the current diverse host of languages in peril will not be reborn, or indeed long transmitted, when the next generation speaks and thinks exclusively in some language better known . Given enough time and the right conditions, diversity might one day re-generate, it is true: but the time is measured in dozens of generations, and the conditions involve separate and independent development in a way that is hard to foresee happening again for long, anywhere in the world.

For the first time, we now see the world as a bounded whole, quite objectively in photographs. But seeing the world as we do, and being informed about the multiple courses of its history, we can also see that the spread of a widespread common language, a lingua franca, does not actually require the loss of smaller languages. We can also see that most people in the world are, even now, actively bilingual (even if most of us denizens of large, metropolitan countries are unaware of this).

And perhaps, seeing both the trend of language loss and a possible escape-route, for the first time we might try to do something about it.

For there is no positive value at all in language loss as such: all the benefit seen as coming from widespread monolingualism could just as well be gained through adding a lingua franca but keeping the old languages. And there are real, bitter and irremediable losses that come with the loss of language traditions. These losses can be felt with the heart. They can also be recognized, even to an extent quantified, by the mind.

There is a much quoted Welsh proverb: pobl heb iaith, pobl heb galon : a people without a language is a people without a heart. As human beings, we need to value our traditions — as we do the other members of our families — even if there are times in our lives, especially adolescence and youth, when they seem to be more of a burden than a source of strength and enlightenment. Curbing the young, corralling them and their fresh impulses within the traditional bounds, is a recipe for stagnation for everyone; but allowing them to disappear and lose touch with their origins leaves them ultimately rootless, their elders abandoned, and the rising generation (increasingly often these days, especially in North America) feeling cheated that their heritage has been allowed to disappear. The home fires have to be kept burning until the boys (and girls) come home.

Besides this loss of warmth and continuity in small communities when their own languages die out, humanity as a whole is a loser too. An interfering busybody in a Roman play once remarked:
Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.
I am a human being: everything human is my concern.
(Terence, Self-Avenger 1.1.25)
The appeal of other people’s affairs is undeniable. Part of the reason is that other people think of things that we never would have. Two minds are very more fruitful than one, and this applies at the level of different sets of ideas built up in different directions by different societies.

When these traditions do survive, they can enrich not just their own people, but vast numbers of others who may come in contact with them. From the Gauls, the Romans gained a wealth of new ideas about wheeled vehicles, greatly improving the value of their road-system. But these did not depend upon language: the evidence of Gaulish chariots, buggies, waggons and postchaises was there before their eyes. The Gauls also valued fine speaking and spellbinding stories, but the techniques of Gaulish rhetoric were never passed into Latin; they were lost with the Gaulish language. This was the Romans’ loss too — for one thing they never ceased to value, and endlessly sought to study under Greek masters, was skill with words. They just never thought to look for it among barbarians.

We ourselves should know nothing of these skills, if outlying centres of Celtic eloquence had not survived in Ireland and Wales. Some of the style the Gauls had is familiar to us, and was described faintly (but not imitated) by the Greeks and Romans:

... in their conversation terse and enigmatic, often speaking in allusive riddles Diodorus Siculus, V.31

We can see the sort of thing he had in mind, in a Gaelic comment from perhaps 600 years later:

Trí húaithaid ata ferr sochaidi: úathad dagbríathar, úathad bó hi feór, úathad carat im chuirm.

Three scarcities that are better than plenty:
a scarcity of fine words, a scarcity of cows in a meadow, a scarcity of friends at beer. The Triads of Ireland, ed. Kuno Meyer, 93

It cannot be proved, because the full depths and breadth of ancient wisdom are unplumbed: but the only reasonable assumption is that all cultures have fostered, and preserved in their language traditions, distinctive learning, which is of continuing benefit to their own people, and at some point may benefit others.



We can disregard them, of course; indeed, we are all too likely to, trusting that our culture, having taken the initiative in contacting these different people, has nothing to learn and everything to teach. Macaulay, when calling for Indian education henceforth to be in English, wrote:

The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West... It may safely be said that the literature now extant in that language is of greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together. Macaulay: Minute on Education, 1835.

This was the spirit in which, 400 years ago, Bishop Diego de Landa burnt all the Mayan books he could lay his hands on.

These people also used certain characters or letters with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and with them and figures and some signs on the figures they understood their matters and explained and taught about them. We found a great number of books of these their letters, and because they contained nothing but superstition and the devil’s falsehoods, we burnt them all, which touched them to a wondrous degree and grieved them.
Landa: Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, ca. 1570
(ed. Miguel Rivera, 1985) Madrid: Historia 16, p. 148.

This was the spirit in which in our own century, Protestant missionaries have terminated initiation practices in Australia. At this very moment, missionaries are actively contacting groups of Huaorani Indians in Ecuador, and sending their children to school in Spanish.

The wreckers, believing themselves cultured, often had no idea of the transmission of scholarship and theoretical understanding, developed and passed on over centuries and longer, that they were interrupting, and so destroying, by these harsh acts. Only in the last generation have a few scholars managed to piece together a small remnant of what was then lost. This is not just the medical uses of the rain forest plants, important as these may be. Whole new worlds of the mind, intellectual treasure-houses, have been built in these languages. They were simply overlooked, or disregarded.

For the Maya, Western scholars began in 1973 to decipher a system of hieroglyphs, gratuitously complicated by calligraphy (since a Mayan scribe, ah tzib, was no more and no less than an artist), and became able to read a large corpus of royal records which were graven on stone (and so immune to Landa’s bonfires). From them, Linda Schele and others had laboriously worked out the word for the ball-game central to their religion: pitz. It was this game that the Divine Twins played to escape from the Lords of Death. But this word still lives on, in many of the Mayan languages, not least for the games that children play with grass balls. Its ritual significance seems to have been lost. But Mayan shamanism is still very much alive, and something of its meaning can still be learnt. Martín Prechtel, for example, has imbibed its language and lived its life, and tells of its import in his book Secrets of the Talking Jaguar.

From the Lardil of Australia’s Mornington Island, Kenneth Hale heard in the 1960s from some of the last initiates how a whole secret language could be taught, and learnt for active use, in a single day. This means that it had very few words, perhaps no more than 250. But any meaning could be expressed, so that the language brought into play whole new principles of allusion and definition. People spoke, in a way that would have delighted the mediaeval scholastics, per genus et differentiam. This language, Damin, was in one way like George Orwell’s invented Newspeak, in that it systematically provided negatives for its adjectives: small tjitjuu vs. large ‘un-small’ kuri-tjitjuu.. And although ‘I/we’ n!a was distinguished from ‘you’ n!u, this last could also mean ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’.

The fact that these cultural innovations are embedded in, or annexed to, the very languages that are spoken, means that they will represent more than the bright idea of a single person, which could presumably recur anywhere else. Languages are the creatures of tradition, passed from generation to generation. What they preserve has inevitably stood the test of time. Languages, unlike people, are in principle immortal: like genes, they survive because they are transmitted. This means that they can elaborate and refine their ideas far longer and more thoroughly than any single person can do.

Each living language has implicit in it something analogous to a scientific paradigm, the system of thinking and memory that supports a way of life. The wonderful thing is that, unlike Western science, these paradigms are different: the languages represent thousands of different lessons learned by our (single) species from living in different ways in our (single) world.

If a way can be found to confer respect on the language traditions that remain, so that their holders are inspirited to carry them on even as they become familiar with other languages of international communication, the next century will witness a dialogue as stimulating as humanity has ever known.

The current growth of the Internet can be seen as potentially useful here. Not only is it a tool that allows easy self-publication of material to the world at large; it also allows easy communication point-to-point. Small communities can tell the world something of what they have to offer; but, for the first time, members of those communities can also find, and then be in direct contact with their peers in other places (and in other language traditions). For the first time, this can happen without the mediation of large-scale sponsors, whether churches, international organizations or indeed citizens of large nation-states and speakers of metropolitan languages.

This is the golden scenario. But things could go very differently. In their rush to better themselves economically, spurred by modern mass media which give them a very vivid picture of the consumer heaven that they feel they lack, people often abandon the old languages and the old traditions that go with them; typically, the young lose interest, and the older generations, judging from the disrespect that they have had to suffer for their association with a surviving minority language, lose faith. Transmission falls away, from one generation to the next, and to the next but one. Later generations can have no more than a sentimental interest in their language; they will no longer know it well enough to engage in any sort of dialogue, with speakers of their local big language, or indeed any living small language.

Others will sense a quite different danger, almost the converse. Suppose pride returns to the smaller languages: this will deliver a vast fillip to smaller national and tribal identities. The consciousness so stimulated will not just be about knowledge and enlightenment: it will equally inspire aspirations to power and self-assertion. Multiple languages can lead to fractious people and unstable government.

It is true that self-consciously multicultural societies are hard to govern well, and potentially explosive when they are governed badly, which usually means too heavily. In the 20th century, the bumbling multilingual Ottoman Empire was transformed into a purposely monolingual Turkey over the dead bodies of Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and not a few Turks. Even when associated with a discrete territory, languages can provide rallying-points for violent politics: Chechen in Russia, Dayak and Acehnese in Indonesia, are just a few examples in today’s news; and some would add Irish in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.

But the real causes here are human clannishness, and power politics. The most famous internecine struggles and massacres that have gone on in the 20th century in Vietnam, Cambodia, Ruanda, Korea and Colombia have had no linguistic component at all; while in other cases, as the Mayans in Guatemala, or the Basques in Spain, the root of the problem has been in long-term heavy-handedness of national governments. Identity, mishandled, can cause friction. But languages offer more than a badge of identity. They offer a field for the development of otherness, new ideas and new sensibilities.

These are the dangerous futures, the danger of too little faith, and the danger of too much fear. If there is a solution to either of them, it must be to try to make the view set out in this paper so familiar that it seems like the most obvious common sense.

Everybody needs to have a certain sophistication about the confrontation of smaller languages with the big languages of global mass culture, a phenomenon that is in fact being played out all over the world. When they do, there will be an end to the false dilemma between learning the majority’s lingua franca and staying in touch with the home language. Everybody who can should do both.

But what of us, the unfortunate native speakers of successful imperial languages like English, French, Spanish, Russian or Chinese, who have no domestic language of our own to keep safe our more intimate discourse with family, friends and fellow-poets? We shall never share the sheer spaciousness of domain, known by speakers of small languages, who can move from their home language out into world-speak, but returning when they seek something at a scale more adapted to human life.

We do stand to benefit, like everyone else, from what could be a global Renaissance, the enrichment which will come when the speakers of different small language traditions choose to communicate, on a level of mutual respect and equality. Even now we can intone the odd Mayan blessing:

Kiil utziil; nimlakh taq kaslimaal; makhun loulo; oshlakhukh matioshiil
Long life; honey in the heart; no evil; thirteen thank-yous.
(Prechtel: Secrets of the Talking Jaguar)