Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Languages

I was angry enough this morning about the AIG bonus payouts. And then Mike blogged about it and mentioned a petition against the bonuses sponsored by moveon.org, just about the only organization I detest more than the financial mismanagement industry. So here I sit in my study with my cup of coffee and a full head of righteous indignational (?) steam...and need to write about something else to get myself centered again.

Let's talk about disappearing languages.

This very interesting article appeared in yesterday's Washington Post: Preserving Languages is About More Than Words. Today is, of course, St Patrick's day, when everyone in the country thinks he's Irish...but the Irish language, known as Gaelic, is actually disappearing. The article notes that Gaelic is one of thousands of endangered languages around the world...although it is Ireland's official language, there are only about 30,000 fluent speakers left, down from 250,000 when the country was founded in 1922.

Everywhere, languages are dying out. Most of the traditional American Indian languages are all but extinct, and most of the rest are considered "endangered," and on just about every continent there are languages which are disappearing as they are crowded out by English, Spanish, Chinese, and the other "mega-languages" that are widely spoken. In Indonesia, for example, 147 languages are threatened with extinction and one - Lom - had only ten speakers remaining in 2000. You can find an interactive atlas showing the various endangered languages here, and download a .pdf file of the UNESCO Map of the World's Languages in Danger (speaking of danger, this is a 19MB file, so don't try to download it if you have a slow connection).

Why is this important? Language is an integral part of who we are, what we think, and how we act. If a language dies out, so does the world of those who spoke it. We may never know the history of that people, or understand how they viewed the world around them. For my own part, I don't think you can really understand the stories of Franz Kafka unless you read them in the original German, and I'm sure that the literature of other languages is much the same.

Language is important. It helps define us. We admire those who speak and write well, noting that the good use of language is a mark of education and culture. If we lose the language, we lose a little bit of ourselves.

So do your part to keep your langauge from dying out. Practice by writing to your senator or congressman to complain about the AIG bonuses, or whatever is on your mind.

You could even write me a letter. Mike.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

While I agree with your point in general, being a big fan of understanding other languages and cultures, I can't agree about Kafka. I've read his work in the original German and it makes no more sense to me in German than in English. Now I can attest that Chekov's plays are far more eloquent in Russian than English, so I get your general point.
My nephew is currently living in China while finishing a MA and was visited by my brother and his wife. Their comments--many, many people speek at least some English there and the signs in English are ubiquitous in the large cities. Surprising to me, even though the Chinese have made it easy to learn English.

Daniel said...

Just don't call it Gaelic in Ireland... Everyone there refers to it as Irish. I learned the hard way and was educated by my relatives there....

fiona said...

one - Lom - had only ten speakers

1. I'm up for learning to speak "Lom" where do I buy a phrase book??
2. There are only TWO people in the world fluent in "Bogie"
Lessons anyone?
3. What about Scots Gaelic? Now there's an interesting one for you darlin!

Mike said...

My wife worked with a gal from Kenya. Kenya has 43 tribal areas. Each tribe has it's own language. Then everyone speaks Swahili for inter tribal communications plus English.

One of these days I'm going to learn 'texting'. OMG will that b gr8.

That's it. A text letter to Bilbo. In cursive. A new form of communication is born.

Wv: cantaw - because there's nothing cute to look at now.

Anonymous said...

You should visit the Seneca Nation's Reservation in NY. Their native tongue is taught to all students in the schools, and the local grocery store has tagged some of their shelves with the Seneca word for the product. Did you know O-hi-yo is the Seneca name for the Allegany River that flows through their Reservation (once it hits PA, the spelling changes to Allegheny)? Native dances are taught after school, and their religious beliefs are passed down in the Long House. I am not sure what the other tribes of the Iroquois Nation do in their schools, but they all celebrate their culture with a PowWow...with very young children to the elderly competing in their dance contests in their beautiful costumes. It's not just the languages, it's the traditions and the cultures that are being lost in our melting pot...watching the Seneca Nation strive to preserve theirs is something to be admired.