Foundation for Endangered Languages
Christ Wankai “Christ lives”, proclaims the message over the altar in Bidyadanga (a town called “by the emu”) on the north coast of Western Australia. In this church services are celebrated in a medley of languages: English, certainly, but also Karajarri, Nyangumarta, Mangala, Yulparija and Juwaliny. We can be glad, then, that Christ is not the only sustaining presence to survive here at the northern end of the Eighty Mile Beach. But if he is now the centre of discourse, the speakers of these languages are talking in very different terms from their ancestors. Does this matter? And if it does, does it give the lie to the usual claim that the point of protecting and revitalizing old languages is to keep alive their own unique cultural wealth?
In an important way, all natural languages are on a par. They are all good for people to talk and think in; they sustain a lot of an individual’s mental processes. The basic givens of human life, birth, growth and death, living and sleeping, eating and drinking, having a laugh, relating to friends, family and enemies, responses to the natural world, to beauty, ill health and hard work, are always represented in them. And it is always possible to use them to talk about new things, even if new words have to be invented to make the new meanings clear: agriculture, industry, architecture, military organization, science, economics, music and fashion have all been new fields at some point in every language of the world. Some languages have yet to come to terms with some of these, and all languages will have to innovate to keep up. As such, any language can always be transmitted, usefully, to another generation, even if it finds itself undergoing changes as the life of its speakers evolve.
By contrast, cultures are not all on a par: some of them can never survive contact with some others, simply because of the incompatible demands, and universal claims, that some cultures make. The Aztecs’ practice and theory of human sacrifice could not persist once they were subject to the Spanish, with their mission to spread the Christian gospel, nor could Athenian direct democracy be applied to govern the vast tracts of Asia taken by Alexander. (To be honest, that experiment was never likely to be tried, democracy never having been much more than a curiosity in the ancient Greek world.) The property-free idyll of ancient Australia could not continue, even in the interstices, when powerfully-armed and violent settlers were determined to institute farming and mining on the very same land. The best that one can hope, when these juddering culture-clashes do come about, is that there will be some slight mutual accommodation, even if most of the changes are bound to be imposed on one side.
For those on the weaker side, the price of achieving any survival at all may be to accept and adopt certain elements of the stronger culture. This is one way of seeing the recent effort of the Arapaho community to produce a dubbed version of the children’s film classic Bambi (narrated in Hinton and Hale ed., reviewed later in this issue). But perhaps more commonly, the bridging initiative comes from the other side, as philanthropically inclined exponents of the dominant culture try to make some of it — typically what they see as the best of it — available to their dominated neighbours. The missionary movements that came under the flags of conquering or marketeering powers, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, could be seen in this light; and they have all had considerable success in creating new communities of their own faith round the world, and by the same token (since languages do not all immediately die out when the culture is transformed) introduced their own faith as a new element in other people’s language communities.
This new element may even have been of real value in immunising the recipients against some of the harsher side of contact with colonists; but I can’t help noticing that the only missionaries who seem to have been successful in the long term without military cover have been Indian Buddhists of the 1st millennium AD, voyaging across the Bay of Bengal to South East Asia, or trekking round the Himalayas to China and beyond. These cultural contacts, inspired by nothing but humane altruism, and perhaps the spirit of adventure, are also noteworthy in never having contributed to the endangerment of a single language.
Sometimes it is not clear who is getting the free ride in these situations: are the speakers of the language benefiting from the new ideas and rituals proposed by the incoming foreigners, or is it just the proselytizing culture-group which benefits by gaining new adherents among people whose language previously made them inaccessible? Is the old language-group getting new vitality from the incoming culture (usually a religion), or is this new culture-group finding its expansion eased by adopting a new vehicle, a language hitherto untouched?
Ultimately, the question arises: if a language has lost its traditional culture, is it worth protecting? If the language is now used only as the vehicle for a once alien way of life, it is not preserving the wisdom of ancestors, or solidarity with them: the sounds, the grammar and the lexicon in such a case are perhaps only of interest to theoretical linguists, and the odd antiquarian. For the speakers, they serve only to mark them out as not (yet) belonging to the dominant in-group.
Some intellectual humility is called for here. Looking back on a couple of the older cases where missionaries have deeply affected subject peoples, the outcome has not been as clear-cut as the missionaries expected -- or as our argument is leading us to surmise. In Yucatán, Chiapas and Guatemala, although for 400 years Catholic churches have replaced Mayan temples as as centres of worship, the old gods continue to appear among the saints: the faith of speakers of Tz’utujil or Kaqchikel is in some ways a richer and more complex thing than that of their pre-Christian ancestors -- and like no other Christian congregation on earth. And the actions of would-be missionaries can have perverse results. The 16th-century prelate Bernardino de Sahagún may have believed that his researches into Aztec ethnography would expedite the task of the ministry, and the extirpación de los idolos. But what his Nahuatl-Spanish bilingual book, , actually achieved was to preserve, and so celebrate, the detailed memory of Aztec culture long after the oral tradition had broken down.
Still, the transformations that come about as a result of cultural contact and transfusion do pose serious risks for dominated peoples in the long term, even when they seem to have found a modus vivendi. In the 3rd millennium BC, after Sumer and its language were submerged by Agade and Babylon, the pearls of its literature were preserved for 600 years at the core of studies for scribes: but when Babylon itself was taken over by Kassites, the life went out of the Sumerian tradition. In Egypt, after the Arab conquest of the 7th century BC, Coptic managed to keep a role for itself as the language of the Christian community: but even so, the next six or seven centuries sufficed to wipe it out as a living language, though Egyptian Christianity lives on to this day.
The challenge to the survival of languages living with a larger neighbour never goes away, then. But as Welsh and Mâori have shown in the last couple of decades, it is possible for tides to turn, and for the terms of old accommodations to be revised, and even made more favourable.
The nature of a language is to be passed on — even without conscious teaching — from one generation to the next. When this tradition is noted by its own people, it becomes valued, and hence valuable. In this sense, the tradition creates the treasure, whatever its content may be. Like Christ, the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha, and many, many others, it is alive today because its memory is preserved.
This truth has commended itself in all ages, all over the world: here are just three languages’ ways of saying that formulation in a language is what gives the world its form. Try as they might, cultural missionaries have never yet succeeded in recasting another people’s world totally, while their language yet lives.
Ñamandu Ru Ete tenondegua ...
True Father Ñamandú, the First One…
For the very great one is Ptah, who gave life to all the gods and their ka’s through this heartthrough this tongue, in which Horus has taken shape, in which Thoth has taken shape, as Ptah… (Horus personifies kingship. Thoth, god of reason, is also the patron of scribes.) Memphite Theology (“The Shabaka Stone”), 56 (Egyptian, mid 3rd millennium BC, recopied in 710 BC - translation Miriam Lichtheim 1973, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1, p. 52
EN ARCHI HN O LOGOS KAI O LOGOS HN PROS TON QEON KAI QEOS HN O LOGOS. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. St John’s Gospel, i.1