A language cannot be alive if it exists alone in the mind of an old man. What happens when a language is on the verge of its demise? What happens then, when its last speaker is forced to shoulder the weight of centuries’ worth of culture, history and stories that his vernacular embodied?
Can the last speaker of a language be considered as such if there is no longer anyone else to speak his language to? When you no longer have someone willing to inherit the burden of learning a language that has lost its practicality in a pragmatic world, its legacy hangs precipitously on the cusp of eternal rest alongside your own.
Globalisation: Ally or Adversary?
In the last 500 years, the advent of globalisation has facilitated the spread of the world’s dominant languages. What are classified as ‘metropolitan’ languages such as English, French and Mandarin, are expanding at an ever-increasing pace, but at the expense of ‘peripheral’ indigenous tongues. Of the 7,000 languages that are estimated to be spoken globally currently, linguists assert that nearly half of this number are on the precipice of extinction within the next hundred years. At present, they are already vanishing at a rate of about one every two weeks.
What will be lost is not just a couple of words, but a loss in the potential to understand the vast varieties and unique idiosyncrasies of human cultures and knowledge. In many places, indigenous tongues and their keepers carry rich sources of information that they use to navigate the world around them - some of immense practical value.
The True Value of Language
For example, in the Amazon region, an itinerant group of traditional healers known as the Kallawaya have their own secret language used to confer and pass down precious knowledge of medicinal herbs, cures and treatments which were not known to mainstream scientific studies. The imminent risk of their extinction would translate into the loss of potential for medical science to tap onto these uncommon cures.
The healing art of the Kallawaya ethnic group stems from a deep cocktail mix understanding of botanics and medicinal knowledge. Their traditional way of life has been increasingly threatened by acculturation.
In addition, not all language concepts are universal, even some ideas in the ‘mainstream’ dictionaries capture unique sentiments that are not necessarily transferable in other tongues, such as the Frenchs’ Flâner, a word used to describe the act of ambling down a city’s street with no other goal or destination other than to take in its ambience. The same can be extended to the Germans’ Schadenfreude, which means pleasure built on another’s misfortune. On this note, one can only imagine the wide berth of concepts that ‘peripheral’ lexicons hold as well.
Furthermore, a speaker’s dictionary and what is present or not present within, is a mirror of their cultures. In Cicero’s memo De Oratore (On the Ideal Orator) from 55 BC, he observed that there was a lack of a Greek equivalent for the Latin word “ineptus” – which basically means “tactless”. While one researcher, Bertrand Russell, was quick to jump to the conclusion that Greeks as a populace had such impeccable manners that they did not need a word to coin a flaw that did not exist to them, Cicero went on the argue that the absence that term is more indicative of the notion that such a flaw was so pervasive amongst the Greeks that they were not even aware of it.
Hence, with so much human idiosyncrasies and unique modes of thought, customs and culture at stake, the loss that comes with laying each language to rest is high. So, what accounts for this increasing endangerment of these languages?
The Cost of Commonality
Most indigenous languages are often displaced by a more socially and economically viable one. In a world pursuant of development and opportunities, speaking a more common parlance has the practical value of opening doors to education and job opportunities. In some immigrant communities, parents are less willing to teach their children the vernaculars of their heritage out of well-intentioned concerns that holding on to something of little practical value would pose an obstacle to their success in life.
An example of the above would be Ayapaneco, a Zoquean language in Ayapa, Mexico that is critically endangered and on its last legs. In the 1930s, the rise of universal public education in Mexico prohibited children to converse in their native languages. In addition, come the 1970s, urbanisation and migration rose in Ayapa with the discovery of oil and its consequent economic potential, further diluting and breaking up the core group of native speakers that originally concentrated in the village. What hammered the final nail in the coffin would be introduction of compulsory education in Spanish, and with it the relegation of many “primitive” tongues to the backseat. The same pattern of language displacement can also be said for many others, such as Cherokee – the North American Indians.
Reads: School of Ayapaneco: Don Manuel and Don Isidro, the last two speakers of Ayapaneco conducting their own lessons in an effort to preserve their dying native language
In today’s globalised landscape, the top ten languages in the world dominates almost half of our population. Hence, one can only beg the question: can the diversity of language be preserved, or are we on the trajectory to becoming a monolingual society? And yet, in a time so freight with strife stemming from miscommunication and the inability or opportunity to understand one another, would flattening communication be such a bad thing?
And yet, languages are conduits of human heritage and a way to convey a community’s stories, songs and knowledge. How many traditions are out there in the corners of our world that we will never get to know about or understand enough before they disappear for good?