What's Lost When a Language Dies?
The story, at least so far, spans three decades and three continents. She came by plane, flying over the Pacific, leaving Tokyo behind. He came by ship, crossing the Atlantic, looking back at his home in Istanbul. Their paths would zig and zag, until one day they would meet in, of all places, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Each brought a homeland, each brought a native tongue; yet they lived in a third land, communicated in a third language. And this third realm would become home--perhaps more home than the homes they left behind. And their unusual union would produce two children, a boy and a girl. They would know this place, America, as home. But they would know that part of them came from far-off corners they could scarcely imagine, let alone understand.
These children would grow and think and learn. They would do this in English. The girl would grow up, one day, and visit the far-flung lands of her origins with her parents, at once learning about the histories of these foreign places and the histories of her foreign families. She would study languages herself, German, French, even a bit of Japanese, with varying degrees of proficiency. She would spend her days working on her English--not the grammar, nor vocabulary, but the crafting of phrases. And she would find herself, one September afternoon, in a circle of two dozen high school students, trying to make the sounds of the ancient, sacred language of Dakota.
Toked eniciyapi he?
What's your name?
Our teacher, University of Minnesota instructor Neil McKay, is working through a list of Dakota language words and phrases, asking us to repeat them so we can practice the correct pronunciation. He says a word--okanna, which means grandfather--and asks us to say it back. The teenagers respond, as teenagers will, with barely audible mumbling. What is it about learning a new language that's so very uncomfortable? It's like standing at the bottom of a craggy mountain. You understand everything here, right where you are. But if you start to climb into this unfamiliar territory, your thoughts must be compressed down into the skeletal language you possess. It's scary not to be able to say what you want or understand what's going on around you. But if you slowly, steadily, climb the hill, the vista may be quite beautiful.
Myself, this is my favorite part. Mimicking the unfamiliar sounds of a new language. Figuring out the architecture of a foreign grammar. Learning a rudimentary vocabulary. Some people like to solve riddles of logic or discover visual patterns; I like the puzzle of a new language. It's like unlocking a secret code that opens up an entirely new world of possibility. Yesterday you had no idea how to say "cousin" in Dakota, or "window" in French, or "fish" in Japanese. Today you do. This is the fun stage, before the struggle begins as you try to really speak and listen and think and dream in this foreign tongue. This is long before the frustration hits, sparked because you don't know how to say anything more complicated than cousin or window or fish.
Most of the teens sitting here were born a century after the federal Indian boarding school movement took off in the late 1870s. From then until 1920--and sometimes even later--Indian children were plucked from their homes and placed in government-run schools whose main mission was assimilation, or the "civilizing" of Indians to accept Christian values and speak English. They were forced to abandon their traditional ways of dress, their ceremonial and religious beliefs. And they were forbidden to speak their native languages. In many published accounts of their days in boarding schools throughout the country, Native Americans describe facing cruel punishment for breaking the "English-only" rules. Some recall being beaten or spanked or slapped with rulers. Others were made to live on only bread and water or were locked in the school jail. Still others had to brush their teeth with lye.
As a result of this abuse--and the prevailing notion that their own cultures and languages were somehow dirty and inferior--many of the students sent to boarding schools never became fluent speakers of their own language. They could not pass the language down to future generations. Even those who did retain their language skills often opted not to teach their children, for fear that they would face the same discrimination. Over the years fewer and fewer American Indians learned to speak their own languages. And so it is that even generations later, these kids are suffering the consequences.
Sitting at my right in the circle is Rebecca. She is 17 years old. She exudes 17-year-oldness, at once bubbly and shy, as eager to learn as she is to laugh. She wears low-cut jeans and black boots with a chunky high heel. Her chestnut hair is streaked with gold highlights, cropped close to her face to reveal multiple earrings. Her eyes are an unusual shade of bright violet--colored contact lenses, she explains. Purple is her favorite color.
Rebecca is from the Flandreau Reservation in South Dakota. She is one of a group of students from her high school that squished into a van and traveled six hours to attend this conference on the Dakota language at the University of Minnesota. The program, sponsored by the American Indian Studies Department, the nonprofit Grotto Foundation, and other organizations, hopes to raise awareness that it's now or never: Without concentrated efforts to promote and revitalize it, the ancient language could one day become extinct.
In Minnesota, 7,541 people identify themselves as either as Sioux or part Sioux--another name for Dakota, the people who first tended this land we call Minnesota today ("Sioux" includes Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota tribes). The Dakota language, as native tongues go, is fairly robust: There are 15,000 people with some Dakota language skills in the United States and 5,000 in Canada, according to Ethnologue, the publication of the language group SIL International. But there are less than 30 fluent speakers left in Minnesota's four Dakota communities (that figure does not account for people who speak the language less fluently, people who live in Minnesota outside the reservations, or Dakota speakers in other states and Canada).
In any case, the numbers are small enough that the coordinators of the conference say it's time to take action to prevent this language from disappearing. And so this afternoon we're sitting in a special workshop aimed at increasing the students' interest in learning Dakota. Most of them repeat in a monotone that they're here today to learn about their language and culture. Most of them know a little, but not much. Some of them aren't quite interested enough to come back to the classroom after a short break.
We divide into smaller circles to work on sample dialogues. We go around the circle, asking each other, "What's your name?" Rebecca writes out the phrases before she utters them, saying it helps her to see them on paper. She asks our teaching assistant how to pronounce certain words, how to form specific sentences. "Huh," she says, pleasantly surprised. "I guess I know more than I thought I did."
Though Rebecca's father speaks Dakota, he didn't pass the language down to his children. She doesn't know why he didn't, but she'd like to learn more of the language now, to speak it with her little nephews so they can grow up with the language. But it's a challenge to find the time to take classes or speak with elders. "It's hard because I've been working and stuff," she admits. "They're looking to us as the next generation to keep this all going, and we don't even know our own language. We don't even know our own traditions."
By the time this workshop is over, we've learned a few more phrases, going around the circle. "Toked eniciyapi he?" Rebecca asks me. "Leyla emakiyapi ye," I say. (My name is Leyla.) "Tonintanhan he?" (Where are you from?) "Bdeota hematanhan." (I'm from Minneapolis.) We've learned that there are certain words that only men say, and some that only women say. For example, a man would call a male cousin tahansi, but a woman would call a male cousin ic'esi. All in all, the afternoon lessons are an interesting exercise, offering the kids a tiny introduction to the language of their heritage.
This workshop is heartening--all is not lost. But it's wistful too. Learning a few basic Dakota phrases is relatively simple. Reviving a threatened language is considerably harder. You've got to create the interest in learning the language. You've got to create an opportunity for immersion in the language in order to gain fluency. Only then can you start to think in that language, even dream in it. And, in the case of Dakota and other indigenous languages, you've got to counteract hundreds of years of oppression and forced assimilation by the dominant culture.
In the spring of 1993, my father and I went to Istanbul to visit his mother, my grandmother. On the plane, Dad picked up all the Turkish-language newspapers he could find. After 31 years in the United States, he told me, he had long since learned that in preparation for his annual visits to his homeland, he had to warm up his ability to speak--and think--in his mother tongue. With a Turkish vocabulary of about five words (most of them swear words), I had no such preparations to make. I was just a college student, getting ready to spend the first two weeks of my summer vacation somewhere I hadn't been since I was a toddler. A place I really didn't know, but that was nonetheless a part of me.
With the domes and spires of mosques dotting its hills, Istanbul was like no place I'd ever seen. Our trip was a whirlwind, a dizzy spin of Dad's family and friends, the sights of the ancient Ottoman Empire, stories about my dad's childhood, his studies at university, his years in the army. I would watch and listen as my father would chat and joke and laugh with these people--all in a language he never spoke to me, that I never understood. I would get lost in the gentle swirl of the Turkish language, floating on its melody without the slightest comprehension. But even so, this place was not totally strange. Sights we saw, foods we ate, people we met--these were all things that I'd grown up with, in some way, through the words and actions of my father. Now, having had a first-hand taste of this place that was both foreign and familiar, I was eager for a bigger bite.
My grandmother was so excited to see me that she was all broad smiles and gentle embraces. I wondered how she could feel so connected to me when we couldn't even talk to each other. Yes, I was her granddaughter. But she didn't really know me at all. One afternoon I found myself alone with her in her parlor. Knowing that she spoke French, I tried to start a conversation. With all of three semesters of French under my belt, I could say things like, "It's a nice day," and "I'm cold," and "How are you?" Needless to say, the conversation was far from deep. But sometimes the power of communication resides simply in sitting in the same room, together.
After our sojourn in Istanbul, Dad went back to Minnesota and I went to Germany, where I was spending the summer working for a TV network. Immersed in German, my first foreign language (and, incidentally, my college major), my skills advanced significantly in three months. But by the time I returned to school in New York that fall, I was smitten with the idea of taking up Turkish. As I worked on fitting it into my schedule, I mentioned the idea to Dad. "Ugh," he grunted. "Don't do that. If you're going to take a new language, take something more useful. Like Arabic." This was not the enthusiastic response I had anticipated. Perplexed, I dropped the idea.
How are you?
"Do you speak much Turkish?"
I'm used to the question. It's usually one of the first ones asked when people learn of my heritage. This morning the one posing the question is Gordon Regguinti, who until recently was the native-language initiative coordinator for the Grotto Foundation, a St. Paul nonprofit that is in the first year of a 15-year plan to revitalize the languages indigenous to our region. "Do you want to learn?" Regguinti continues. "You need to make a concerted effort to create a situation where you can learn the language."
He knows this from personal experience. Regguinti is Ojibwe, a member of the Leech Lake Band. He grew up on the reservation, where his grandparents routinely conversed in Ojibwe, which, with an estimated 35,000 living speakers in the U.S. and Canada, according to Ethnologue, is considered to be a little further from extinction than Dakota. "As a young boy I was exposed to it, but the rest of my life was about learning English," Regguinti says.
There are two ways to discourage learning a native language. There is the active, angry way: Move children from their homes to boarding schools, debase their language and culture, and beat them for failing to speak English. And there is the passive way: Create a society so dominated by the white man's culture that Native Americans must give up their language and take on English in order to survive.
Both methods have left their legacy in Minnesota. In many cases, parents chose not to teach their children Dakota or Ojibwe, to protect them from the discrimination they had endured. A noble idea, but the result is a crisis: If children do not learn their native tongue, what happens to their traditions, their ceremonies, their identities? Without the language, can the culture survive?
"Language defines one's world," Regguinti posits. "In Ojibwe, these words communicate so much more. It's just not possible to express that in English. It helps to underscore our interconnectedness to all, our relationship to all. I can feel it. But I have no way to fully express it."
But there is hope, he says. "For elders, as they approach the end of the road, they look back and say they want to leave something. They're realizing it's the language they want to leave," says Regguinti, who is 47. "Folks my age are realizing, 'It's something I've missed in my life, something that I want to rediscover.'"
So the efforts are expanding. There are immersion programs. In Pine County, for example, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have dedicated 67 acres to a camp where people can come to immerse themselves in the Ojibwe language, through classes, traditional ceremonies, and seasonal work chores. In Shakopee, a Dakota elder is teaching a group of students the language, so that they may go back into their communities and in turn teach other people. Around the state, plans are shaping up to create master-apprentice programs, where a student spends a set number of hours with a fluent speaker, communicating only in Dakota or Ojibwe.
The Grotto Foundation has set aside $5.6 million to fund programs that will preserve native languages and cultures. It's a relatively small amount of money, Regguinti concedes, but hopefully the plan will at least plant the seeds for the tribal governments to kick in some resources. In time, Grotto plans to work in concert with other, larger foundations that are promoting the same types of efforts around the country. "Otherwise, in the long term, a grassroots effort can only go so far, until you create a societal change," Regguinti admits. "Hopefully a groundswell occurs that keeps moving it forward.
"I, personally, can sense it happening," he continues, with a slight smile. "But it's way beyond me, man."
Here are some of my favorite things about the two years I lived in Seattle:
1. Water everywhere
2. Fresh fish
3. The palpable influence of Japanese culture
The third was perhaps the most significant, because it was as a direct result of that enveloping spirit that I decided to learn conversational Japanese. I had grown to love sushi, I had read the stories of the wise Samurai Judge Ooka Echizen no Kami, I had diligently worked on my origami as a child. But I had never asked my mother, born and bred in Tokyo, to teach me her native language, though my older brother Ali had dabbled at it in his youth.
My first foray was an accelerated summer course through the University of Washington, a small class, populated mainly by older executives who frequently traveled to Tokyo for business. We met two evenings a week, and were taught by a very sweet, very ineffective teacher with an impenetrable accent and a habit of writing in illegibly crooked lines on her overhead transparencies.
My next class, at the local community college, was a little more structured. Here I learned to converse a bit more systematically, with a better understanding of how to form a declarative sentence or a question. Here I learned that the language was different from those I knew--English, German, French. Its structure was unlike anything I had previously studied: Sentences often had no subject, nouns had no plural, and definite articles didn't exist--especially not the gendered variety. With this considerably streamlined grammatical backbone, one had to learn to listen carefully, because only from context could the true meaning of a phrase be ascertained.
Mom and I talked at length about this fascinating language, and she dug up some old workbooks she had used when she taught private lessons. I was determined to make a go of my Japanese studies, but I had few illusions. It's a tough language to learn--and I hadn't even begun trying to read the traditional characters of the hiragana and katakana scripts.
By the fall of 1997, I had learned to form basic sentences. I had also moved from Seattle to Denver, where cowboy culture vastly overpowered the teeny Japanese community. The move was the beginning of the end of my Japanese studies, though I kept it up for a few months through weekly private lessons. That October, Mom and I went to Japan for two weeks to visit family--my grandmother, my two aunts and two uncles, my many cousins. One of my uncles and a couple of my cousins speak English, but for the most part, Mom served as translator. I felt that old teenage awkwardness; in front of my family, I didn't want to sound stupid, so even when I thought of questions to ask, I was too shy to say anything in Japanese. Besides, phrases like "Where is the post office?" or "That car is red," don't really serve you well in casual conversation. But as the trip went on, anxiety welled up in my chest. How could I leave the country without giving it a try?
On our last day, Mom and I were leaving my grandmother's house, set back in the maze of narrow streets that wind through Tokyo. I hugged my grandmother, 80 years old and so tiny it felt as though she might break under the embrace. I had practiced and practiced this sentence: "Let's meet at Ali's wedding" (my brother was going to be married the following spring).
"Ali no kekkon-shiki de aimashoo," I said.
My bad pronunciation and my grandmother's declining hearing required that I repeat my special phrase again. Slowly the recognition of the words lit up her eyes. She nodded her head vigorously and grabbed my hand in hers, an exuberant smile blossoming on her face.
That was the only time I've ever spoken directly to my grandmother.
Who are you?
Aileen Littleghost carries her short, plump figure across the room with a quiet grace. There's a light and a kind curiosity in her eyes that puts me immediately at ease. Gentle lines frame her round face, indicating her many decades on Earth and her place as an elder in the Dakota community. She and her husband, Ambrose, an elder and spiritual adviser for the Dakota, have come to the University of Minnesota from their home in Fort Totten, North Dakota, to attend the language conference.
At the moment, Ambrose is holding court in the classroom. The high schoolers listen intently to his low, rolling voice as he shares his views on the Dakota language and culture. Aileen is quieter, and speaks English with a slow accent. She is concerned about the fate of her native language; the thought of its extinction is unbearable.
"It makes me cry," she whispers, adding that the elders who speak fluently won't be here forever. "We're getting older." The Littleghosts adopted a son and daughter and taught them Dakota. Now, their four grandchildren are also learning the language. The kids' other grandmother, Aileen says, is Apache, but she doesn't speak the language. When Aileen asked her if it would be all right to teach the grandchildren Dakota, the other grandmother said yes, and she was sad because she could not teach them Apache.
As Aileen talks, I consider her speech. She does fine in English, but she is clearly more comfortable speaking in Dakota. I wonder whether having a different native language also gives her a fundamentally different perspective on the world.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf explored the relationship between language and thought. Roughly stated, the hypothesis that he and colleague Edward Sapir developed holds that a person's understanding of the world is shaped by her native language. Whorf contended that the significantly different structures of Western languages, Eastern languages, Native American languages, and African languages shaped each speaker's innate ways of viewing and comprehending the world.
"For do you not conceive it possible that scientists as well as ladies with cats all unknowingly project the linguistic patterns of a particular type of language upon the universe, and see them there, rendered visible on the very face of nature?" he posits in a 1941 essay called "Language, Mind, and Reality." "A change in language can transform our appreciation of the Cosmos."
If Whorf's belief is true, what does it mean? Here in the afternoon workshop at the U of M's Dakota language conference, it raises an interesting question: Aileen Littleghost's native language is Dakota; 17-year-old Rebecca's native language is English. They share the same heritage, culture, and history. But do they share the same worldview?
I once asked my father if he found it strange that he and my mother had never really communicated with each other in their native languages. (Though it must be noted that my mother did learn Turkish when they were first married, as they initially planned to build their life in Istanbul.) This was long before I ever knew of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but the question held some inherent fascination for me.
Dad's view, one grounded in personal experience, was distinctly anti-Whorfian. What's the big deal? He and Mom were both fluent English speakers, able to express and understand the most intricate, intimate ideas. Communicating thoughts, concepts, and emotions was the crucial thing--not the language in which they were shared.
It made sense. After all, Dad had never spoken to me in his native tongue (except certain words of discipline), and I had never thought there was a lack of understanding between us that went beyond the basic conflicts between parents and children. Perhaps this is why the connection between our language and our identity is so intriguing.
Tokiya tanhan yahi he?
Where did you come from?
"I do not believe that language entirely determines the way you think," says Luisa Maffi, president of Terralingua, a Washington, D.C.-based organization promoting linguistic and biological diversity. But, she says, "The language you're most familiar with is the one you're most accustomed to thinking in terms of."
Maffi is a renowned scholar of languages. Her background in linguistics led her to Somalia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where she worked with a group of Italian and Somali linguists to create a dictionary of the Somali language. "Studying words and their meaning gets into a tremendous study of cultural knowledge," she says, adding that the focuses of a culture are often embedded in the language.
It's also matter of personal experience for Maffi, who herself is multilingual. She grew up in Italy, speaking Italian, but she also speaks Spanish, French, and English. She still speaks Italian with her family, which allows her to retain ties to her native culture. "But if I had stopped speaking Italian, I might have forgotten a lot more about my native culture," she says. "The more you become detached from your language, background, heritage, it's less likely you'll be able to retain that cultural perspective. It's pretty evident that there are costs and benefits. One is not necessarily able to maintain the full complement of a native worldview when you go from one language to another, one way of life to another. It might be that you talk about cars and movies rather than the plant and animal world or the spirit world."
But how can you tell when a language is endangered? According to Vanishing Voices, a book about the extinction of languages written by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine, of the estimated 5,000 to 6,700 languages that exist today throughout the world, at least half will become extinct over the next 100 years. In 1492 when Columbus arrived in the region of the United States, linguists believe, there were some 300 languages spoken. Only 175 are still spoken today, and many of those appear to be just a generation away from extinction.
When speakers start to abandon a language, Maffi says, it undergoes a process of simplification in syntax, forms of speech, the composition of words, sounds, vocabulary. "There is an overall loss of features internal to the language itself," she says. "There is a cultural knowledge that is embedded, that is transmitted, that is created through language. As people stop speaking the language, stop learning it, it is difficult--but not impossible--to transfer cultural knowledge to a new culture. But there is much that is lost."
Still, she continues, "Languages change all the time. How do you know when something is not just a 'normal' change, that it's the beginning of the loss of the language?" The answer is relatively simple: The language is not being taught to the children. "You have a very clear sign that its use in a given society is at risk," Maffi explains.
And that's why there is such an emphasis on creating immersion programs where kids can learn Native American languages. U of M Dakota instructor Neil McKay stresses the need for people of all ages to participate in these types of immersion programs--there is even ongoing discussion of creating a Dakota immersion school in the Twin Cities.
Of course, there are already schools that teach Indian languages and culture. One notable example is the Four Winds American Indian Magnet School in South Minneapolis. For the past decade the K-8 public school has attempted to create a curriculum that emphasizes the Dakota and Ojibwe languages and cultures, while still providing such basic skills as reading, writing, and math.
It's been a struggle, according to Principal Gary Lussier. Even as it does its best to emphasize native culture, Four Winds can't focus solely on those areas. As a public school, it must maintain some standard curriculum. And of its 471 students, only 60 percent are American Indian (and most of them are Ojibwe). African American students make up 35 percent of the school, white students 4 percent, and Asian American and Latino the remaining 1 percent. "We tried to have an immersion program, but we backed out because the real challenge was to get our kids capable in reading, capable in math," he says. (Minneapolis Public Schools are currently implementing a plan aimed specifically at improving the academic performance and graduation rates of African American, American Indian, and Latino students in all its schools.)
Teachers do try to find ways to "convert lessons into an American Indian perspective," Lussier says, perhaps by incorporating Ojibwe words into reading lessons, exploring history from a native view, or holding traditional ceremonies. Each day the language instructors teach for only 25 minutes--a far cry from immersion. And while that's understandable, it still makes it difficult for the students to truly learn the languages.
"The only way to retain a language is to use it," says McKay, who is part Dakota and part Ojibwe. His Dakota father was sent to a boarding school, so he never became a fluent speaker. McKay himself knew only bits and pieces of Dakota before he became a student at the U of M. In 1995 he had an experience that, with the help of interpretation by a Dakota elder, led him to start studying Dakota. Today he is proficient, on his way to being fluent, and he's teaching his children, ages 3 years and 10 months, to speak Dakota.
"One of the big keys is to see little kids speaking it," he says. "When I see a little child speaking the language, it makes me want to cry. When our people see that, they'll know the language has a good chance of living on."
My parents made a conscious choice not to teach their languages to my brother and me. They didn't want to choose between Japanese and Turkish, and they didn't want to structure our environment with the rigidity necessary to separate Japanese time, Turkish time, and English time. They wanted us to develop solid English skills and have a solid identity in the United States.
There have been times when I've regretted their choice. With a sigh, I would consider how useful these languages might have proved as I made my way in the world. I would have liked to be able to speak to my grandparents, to ask them questions about their lives and histories. Would I have been a different person, had I learned these languages? Would I have a different sense of self, a different perspective on the world?
I don't know.
My father died last year. The loss was unfathomable; I have only begun to comprehend it. Though he is still with me today, through his stories, though his lessons, through his infectious love of life and learning, I sometimes wonder if losing him means that I have lost the ties to my Turkish heritage. I'm not sure. Had I foreseen that my time with him would be so limited, perhaps I would have rethought that decision not to study Turkish, years ago. I don't know.
What I do know is that the choices my parents made, and the choices I made, have helped define who I am and how I view the world. But I also realize that they were choices. We made them ourselves. They weren't forced upon us by racism or imperialism or fear.
Tukted yati he?
Where do you live?
What will the world be like if so many small languages die? And what can be done to stop that from happening?
First, it's important to create awareness that languages are threatened. That's what events like the Dakota language conference and the grants provided by the Grotto Foundation aim to do. It's important, too, to take stock in the language today: How many people can speak it fluently, proficiently, or just a little? What resources are available for learning the language? Why has it become endangered?
"When we talk about the future, we have to talk about the past," says Dallas Ross, addressing the crowd at the U of M's language conference. "Without looking back, how do we know why we're in the situation we are in today? Without understanding this moment, how are we going to look to the future in hopes of causing something good?
"The government has abandoned the policy of assimilation. They don't need to do it anymore--we do it to ourselves," Ross says. "How do we go back to the way things were? We can't go back, but I don't believe we have to leave everything behind."
Ross is one of several speakers addressing the conference on issues vital to the Dakota community. A resident of Granite Falls, he has often lectured on the oral history of the Minnesota Dakota. He was tribal chairman of Minnesota's Upper Sioux community from 1995 to this year. He now works with the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Environmental Program in the Upper and Lower Sioux Communities of Minnesota.
Ross speaks of his own experiences. He says he doesn't know why his parents chose not to teach him Dakota. And he explains how, through talking with elders throughout the region, he began to realize why the language matters. Some of the elders lived in poverty, and Ross initially felt sorry for them. "But they had so much more than I did," he says. "They grasped who they were. They could speak their native tongue. They were rich because of who they were. They just didn't have a lot of money."
As he ponders the state of Dakota today, Ross prefers to think of the language as "lost" instead of "gone." "At least you have a hope of finding it. It may be misplaced, but it can be found. It can be brought back. The culture can be brought back through the language," he said. "If we do not teach what is lost, then truly at some time it will be gone. Then who will we be?"
And so we arrive at today's situation, when linguists worry about not just one particular language, but about the entire world and the difficult goal of saving endangered languages. "I cannot not be aware of how daunting the task is. The more we, as a larger society, as a global community, acquire awareness of these issues, inform people about this, the more we can dispel the myth of the Tower of Babel--that speaking multiple languages is a curse because we can't understand each other," Terralingua's Luisa Maffi declares. "We need to understand that speaking different languages is not an obstacle. It's one of the expressions of the diversity of life itself and what defines life on earth."
But the mere fact that so many of the world's languages are threatened leads one to question whether they are truly necessary. If people evolve away from a language, couldn't one argue that the language has become obsolete?
"No," Maffi asserts decisively. "No language can be said as being obsolete. No way of life can be said as being obsolete. Each way of life is an expression of human society and the way it has developed." Usually, it is another culture that points the finger, calling a society primitive or obsolete because it is not as technologically advanced as other cultures. "Who is actually to say what makes for more advanced technology? What if you look at how efficient they can be, to do things in a simple way with a minimal expenditure of resources? If you use that different measuring stick, you'll get a different result."
If we sit idly by and allow languages to disappear from the planet, we're not sure what we might lose. We could lose knowledge of medicinal uses of particular plants, offers David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. Locked within the languages of ancient people living along the Amazon could be a cure for cancer--without the language, it would be lost. "We don't know more precisely what we might be missing out on," Harrison says. "A language is an immense storehouse of knowledge. It's like an entire library burning down."
But on a smaller, more personal level, the loss could be just as great. We may lose the stories of our ancestry. We may lose the rituals that bring us closer to our gods. We may lose the ability to talk to our grandmothers. We may not realize it today, but we will feel the loss forever.
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