Dying Languages [Archives:2003/678/Education]

October 20 2003

By Sivadasan,
Department of English,
Faculty of Arts
Ibb, Republic of Yemen

Science always shocked and terrorised the conservatives in many respects. When everybody cries for a single, universal language to communicate with at the wake of this post-high-tec era, the linguists are mourning the loss of many languages throughout the world. This lamentation reminds us of the elite’s soul-searching trips to the villages of many remote areas in the third world countries while the villagers make desperate attempts to migrate to the cities for better prospects. Unbearable and polluted city life was the cause of such explorations – on the part of the soul-seekers – a few decades ago, but no remote area in any part of the world is free from the clutches of the all-pervading high-tec monster these days.
We have had a lot of contradictory events in the history to point out the dual roles played by the science and technology. Bookmaking is one of the interesting examples to cite. Science and technology made bookmaking very fast and easy and gave birth to ever so many authors since the middle ages. But it is facing a serious problem now due to the high-tec storage devices like computer and CD in addition to the postmodern view that declares “the death of the author” as Roland Barthes puts it. Libraries, in the conventional sense, are fast getting eliminated and the sources of knowledge – websites – are easily getting closer to the common people by means of internet. The same is the fate of many a language at the moment.
Marie Smith says that her language – the Alaskan tongue of Eyak – will die with her. And she mourns its passing. “If you were expecting a little baby, and it went back to its home so that it wasn’t born alive, how would you feel?” says Smith, 85, who moved to Anchorage from her tribal home on Prince William Sound in 1973.
A fisherman’s daughter, Smith grew up Eyak, a branch of the Athabaskan Tlingit family of languages spoken for 3,000 years in Cordova, along the Copper River. But she stopped speaking Eyak when she attended government schools. Neither her children nor grandchildren know the language.
“I should have made them learn it, but they just weren’t interested,” she said.
Eyak is among thousands of languages expected to disappear in the next 100 years, a mortality rate that has linguists rushing to document and save the world’s endangered tongues. “We are losing a part of our cultural history,” said Michael Krauss, a University of Alaska linguistics professor and founder of the Alaska Native Language Centre, established in the 1970s to save the state’s 20 native tongues.
Krauss and other linguists blame the losses on economic and social trends, politics, improved transportation and the global reach of telecommunications. Whatever the reason, they predict that as many as half of the world’s 6,800 tongues could die over the next century – and hundreds more will disappear in the century after that.
“I would be the happiest guy in the world if I were wrong,” Krauss said. But he noted that only 500 to 600 languages are spoken by at least two generations, making them relatively safe from extinction. According to experts, half the people on the planet use just 15 languages to communicate, while 10 percent of the population speak in one of about 6,800 distinct tongues. Half the world’s languages are spoken by fewer than 2,500 people, mostly in remote areas that are becoming less remote every day. Global economics are prompting the young to leave isolated villages in India, Mexico and South America. They are headed for cities in search of better lives, leaving native tongues behind.
Meanwhile, satellite TV and the Internet are reaching into isolated areas of Papua New Guinea, a South Pacific island nation with 832 languages, more than any other country. If you go to Papua New Guinea and go out in the most remote areas, you can find grass huts, and alongside one of them you’ll see a satellite dish and, of course, the TV that’s coming in English,” said Anthony Aristar, a linguistics professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies dying languages. He is creating a $2 million database listing the world’s tongues.
The death of a language is nothing new. The spoken word, developed tens of thousands of years ago, is in constant motion. Inventions inspire word creation, wars transform nations, poverty prompts waves of immigration, and other historic events – such as the opening of the American West to European settlers – create conditions where one tongue comes to dominate others.
For example, linguists note that the Norman Conquest transformed early English, which has its roots in German. Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, replaced Etruscan and Punic before it diversified and influenced 30 other languages, including English.
Sometimes, government policies kill a language. Many American-Indian languages near extinction – the Lipon Apache have two or three speakers left – in part because government-run boarding schools punished students for speaking native languages until the 1960s.
Krauss says that about half of the 200 languages native to North America probably will die out over the next century because so few children are picking them up.
Alan Caldwell, director of the Culture Centre at the College of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, remembers his father telling of having his hand slapped with a ruler and his mouth washed out with soap for speaking Menominee at the reservation school, which has closed. The experience left the elder Caldwell, who died in 1972, reluctant to speak the native tongue or pass it on.
“We’d be at the dinner table and we would ask him, “How do you count to 10? How do you say salt and pepper?” And depending on his mood, most often his response was, “You don’t have a need to know that, it won’t do you any good,” Caldwell said.
As a result, only 40 of the tribe’s 8,800 members speak the original language. That is one reason why McCauley, a University of Wisconsin researcher, drives three hours to the reservation each week. McCauley recently won a National Science Foundation grant to compile the first complete Menominee dictionary. The project includes taping the tribe’s elders and transcribing conversations to capture the nuances of the language.
Tribal elders agree that without such help, the language might disappear, and Caldwell, 55, is in a “beginner” class taught by the elders.
In Guatemala, parents encourage their children to forsake native Mayan dialects and learn Spanish to get ahead in life. “They go to school and they see that success depends on learning Spanish,” said Nora England, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas.
Efforts to save languages are as varied as the languages. Nora England spends her summers in Guatemala training local linguists to preserve four endangered Mayan languages.
Guatemala’s villages have been hotbeds of language diversity for centuries because of poor roads and mountainous terrain. The result is 21 distinct Mayan tongues in Guatemala alone and nine in Mexico.
“Some of them are as different from each other as English is from Russian,” England said.
The fight to save other dying languages is more of an uphill battle. Critics argue it’s a waste of time and money if trends dictate their eventual demise.
Neil Seeman, an associate editor at the National Review who operates a Canadian think-tank, said that while dying languages should be recorded for historical study, governments are responding to political pressure with a kind of “cultural protectionism” by forcing languages on people who no longer have use for them. “I have nostalgia for the electronic typewriter, but I don’t see a need for subsidies to protect it or continue its use,” Seeman said.
But linguists say that a society’s culture and history die out when its language expires.
“Part of the world is lost when you cannot name it,” said Stephen Batalden, a linguist at Arizona State University.
In Alaska, Smith says she hopes for a resurgence in Eyak, now that Krauss has recorded her language on tapes and in writing. “I have this feeling in my heart that the Eyak language is going to come back, and usually I’m not wrong about these feelings,” she said.
And if it happens, she will respond with a one-word prayer: “awa’ahdah.”
That’s Eyak for “thank you.”
Courtesy: Calgary Herald