Language(s) Matters

What to say of languages lost?

“In the last 50 years, more than two dozen language families—groups of genetically related languages—have gone dormant, with projections estimating 50-90 percent of the world’s languages disappearing from human communities by the century’s end.”

“We often hear accounts of one language’s reliance on poetic metaphors to convey quotidian meanings, like Farsi or Urdu, or of another language’s lexicon delightfully full of sublime, “untranslatable” entries, like German or Japanese. We also have the scientific terms that describe languages as “head-first,” “polysynthetic,” “tonal,” or “analytic.” ”

“In making open note of this, the film participates in an emerging practice by politically progressive settler descendants who would like to position themselves as allies to the indigene they have displaced: Anglo and Irish Australians and New Zealanders who often begin public addresses by thanking the area’s traditional landholders, Anglo and French Canadians who speak of their hometowns as “so-called Montreal” or “so-called Toronto.” While this tactic can be useful in raising awareness of the ongoing character of colonial occupation, violence, and dispossession, it must be placed in the context of an anticolonial project that exceeds the limits of works like Language Matters.”

“Harrison explores the human science-making capacity through the study of natural, everyday speech in small language communities, explaining how the “disciplines” of meteorology, mathematics, and biology exist in the first instance through data robustly encoded in human signifying systems. Motion verbs can describe topology and river systems, names for birds or seasons describe animal behavior and life cycles, and counting systems reveal non-trivial issues in the philosophy of mind and number theory.”

“It is nearly impossible to overstate the wealth of knowledge that is being erased daily and yearly by the insidious spread of language accretion and homogenization, which follows in the wake of outright massacres and practices now recognized as acts of genocide, such as the concentration camps for children built and operated by US and Australian colonial authorities and Christian groups during the 20th century. Discussing the current state of affairs, linguist Nick Evans recounts attending funeral after funeral, each honoring the last speaker of this or that language. He enumerates some of the colonizers’ atrocities—rape, murder, humiliation, exerted with greatest success over children—and compares the violence done to colonized people’s intellectual cultures as tantamount to “bombing the Louvre,” a particularly apt example, as many famous European museums are little more than lavish storehouses of these same cultures’ stolen treasures.”

” As ELA linguists Daniel Kaufman and Ross Perlin note, capitalism and colonialism are driving these extinction events, and indigenous political and economic sovereignty, the right to self-determination, is a necessary prerequisite to language and cultural survival—these are not solely abstract questions of syntax and lexicon, but of control over land, resources, guns. ”

“These languages are not the world’s, these treasures are “theirs,” not “ours.” Languages belong to their speakers, as do the intellectual traditions and cultural complexes they encode and preserve. Support, or even enthusiastic commitment to language preservation, if predicated solely on values of humanism and universality, replicates the colonizing, imperial moves that continue to push these communities to marginalization, subalterity, and death.”

” The turn toward native language reclamation and revitalization in Wales, Hawai’i, or Austrailia does not hinge on the pleasures of the Anglophone imagination, but represent the application, in that rarefied space of organic virtuality where humans’ signifying behavior occurs, of a complex of strategies devised by indigenous communities for effective decolonization and national liberation.”

“Even in regions rich in linguistic diversity, even when they themselves are fluent polyglots, people will continue to say, each in their own language, “We, it is we who are special,” if only to hear themselves say it.”

“Upholding indigenous communities’ rights to linguistic self-determination necessarily entails upholding the right to self-determination in all aspects of social, political and economic life, however much their exercise might disturb, baffle, or otherwise ignore Western sensibilities. ”

New Inquiry

PBS Program

Linguist K. David Harrison documentary, The Linguists,

Linguist K. David Harrison book When Languages Die.


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