Sunday, December 31, 2006

The death of a language: There is an interesting strain of study right now in linguistics, of attempting to preserve in some way the languages that are dying before our very eyes, constantly. There are estimated to be some 6,000 languages today, which is a reduced number, but globalization means that there will be vastly fewer in the future. I read a magnificent New Yorker profile in springtime lasty ear (not online, but see the June 6, 2005 issue), about the last speaker of a particular Native American language, Eyak. It was a poignant illustration of the homogenization of language. But there always one astonishing counterexample: Hebrew. From the New York Sun, as unlikely a source as any:

Yet the extinctions cannot be stopped, for the most part. Trying to teach people to speak their ancestral languages, for example, will almost never get far beyond the starting gate. Some years ago, I spent some weeks teaching Native Americans their ancestral language. To the extent that the exercise helped give them a feeling of connection to their ancestors, it was time well spent.

However, it was clear that there was no way that they would learn more than some words and expressions. Languages are hard to learn for adults, especially ones as different from English as Native American ones. In Pomo, the verb goes at the end of the sentence. There are sounds it’s hard to make when you’re not born to them. For busy people with jobs and families, how far were they ever going to be able to get mastering a language whose word for eye is ‘uyqh abe?

Yes, there was Hebrew. But that was because of an unusual combination: religion, a new nation, and the superhuman dedication of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who settled in Palestine and insisted on speaking only Hebrew to all Jews, including his infant son. But this extended to reducing his wife to tears when he caught her singing a lullaby to the child in her native Russian. Clearly Ben-Yehuda’s was one of those once-in-a-lifetime personalities.


Thinking about the broad heterogeneity of people using this language, it is obvious that the answer [to the question of what cultural outlook English offers] is none, and the academic literature on the topic yields little but queer little shards of faint support for the “language is culture” idea. Which brings us back to languages as, simply, languages.


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