If I told you there’s an ecosystem that’s going to lose half of its species in the next 100 years, you’d probably figure Greenpeace and the rest would be all over it like ugly on an ape. There is such a mass extinction looming, but it is not an environmental matter. Instead, it is a linguistic one. Of the 6,000 languages humans speak, 3,000 will be gone by the year 2100. We are losing languages at the rate of one every two weeks. And almost no one knows it’s happening, and fewer care enough to act.
PBS just showed a David Grubin documentary that examines this problem. Poet Bob Holman looks at the many dying aboriginal languages of Australia, the revival of Welsh and the efforts to save Hawaiian in a film called “Language Matters.”
As a writer, I have been in love with words my entire life. Words are how we think and how we communicate with each other. Language is not uniquely human; I accept the idea that some simian and cetacean species have language as well. However, language is something that we use to define who we are. How French can a Frenchman be without the language of Dumas, Sartre and de Gaulle?
Some of you might remember the schoolyard rhyme, “Latin is a language, as dead as it can be. First, it killed the Romans, and now, it’s killing me.” We no longer teach Latin and Greek as required courses (I had to learn mine on my own and did a fairly inadequate job), and it’s now possible to graduate from an American university without knowing a language other than English. Indeed, it would be economically better if we all spoke just one language. It would be vastly more efficient. Globalization is pushing some languages to extinction.
Of course, almost no one reading this will have heard of Amurdak, which is spoken by just one man, an old fellow named Charlie whom Holman interviewed for the film. When Charlie is gone, so is Amurdak. Well, so what? There were 300 different aboriginal languages when Captain Cook arrived, and that’s down to about 50 now. And we in New York and Los Angeles, London and Paris are no worse off for it. Languages die out all the time. Even when Caesar was speaking his classical Latin, Etruscan was no more.
But different languages offer a different view of what it is to be human. The Inuit of the far north have numerous words for “snow.” In Arabic, there are 18 different words for “camel.” That is used, often, as proof of how hard Arabic is. Then again, how many words does English have for “car?” (Auto, automobile, car, Ford, Chevy, Mercedes, Rolls Royce, Mustang, Jeep, etc.). From that, you can easily see that snow is more important in one culture than it is in a car obsessed one.
Then, there are just the sounds of words themselves. Take the word “butterfly.” In English, it is a rather lovely sound. The Russian “babochka” is also fairly melodious as is the French “papillon.” German has “schmetterling,” which lacks a certain poetry, even to German speakers. And yet, where would we be without German words for which English has no good counterpart like schadenfreude or weltschmerz?
Languages die when the children no longer learn them. Kids are natural language learners, and it’s easy for them to pick up half a dozen in the right environment. But look at the experience of language in America. The tired, the poor, huddled masses got off the boat, and they didn’t speak English. The pressure to assimilate for financial and social reasons meant the second generation was bilingual, but the grandkids speak only English.
In my family, my grandfather spoke Norwegian, not learning English until he was in school at the age of 7. My father is the youngest of seven, and my older uncles and aunts knew both languages, but leaned toward English. By the time my dad arrived on the scene, Norwegian was hardly spoken at all. My Spanish (tolerable) is much better than my Norwegian (laughable) as a result.
Norwegian, with 5 million or so speakers, is not endangered, but that is because kids in Norway still learn it as their first language and because the language is not persecuted as many minority tongues have been. The Welsh, as Holman shows, have been very successful at reviving their ancient Celtic tongue — it has flourished where Irish has sort of held on, Scottish Gaelic is wobbling, and Cornish and Manx are considered dead Celtic languages. The native speakers of Hawaiian may have saved their language with Hawaiian-only schools, but I think it’s too early to tell.
Biodiversity is considered a good thing because our physical lives may depend on it. I submit that linguistic diversity is also a good thing because our identities as distinct human beings depend on it. Right now, there are 6,000 ways to be human. In a century, there may be only 3,000. I’d say that reduces freedom for all of us because we have fewer options.
Mahalo, tusen takk and thanks.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.