Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tongue Tied: Languages on the Brink of Extinction

There was an article in The Economist a while back on languages that are dying out.

For those of us whose mama loshen is English, we really don't have much to fear at present. English is- at least for now - proving itself to be the Esperanto that actually works.

But, if you were Marie Smith (an English name, if ever), you were the last person on earth who knew the Alaskan Eyut language. She took that knowledge with her when she died, age 89, earlier this year.

Presumably, given her name, she also had English with which to communicate with her friends and family.

Still, it must be a bit sad to have no one else on earth that you can make a muttered aside to, in the language of our childhood - a language that most people don't know - and have them get it.

I've sat in plenty of Irish pubs where the natives will on occasion make a few comments - generally to much laughter - in Irish, before reverting back to English, leaving us Yanks perplexed and wondering whether they were making fun of us. Which they no doubt were. This was fun for the Irish, of course. The kind of fun that poor, old Marie Smith wasn't able to enjoy in her waning years.

Eyut is not the first language to die out, and it won't be the last: The Economist notes that, there are at present nearly 7,000 spoken languages worldwide - and, by the turn of the next century, 50% to 90% may be gone.

The world is getting smaller, and with English as the current language of - you pick - commerce, science, technology, and popular culture, it makes more sense for someone to learn English than it does for some to learn, well, Eyut. Or Hungarian. Or Finnish. Or Gaelic.

Eyut would obviously be a big waste of study, now that Ms. Smith has passed on. But unless you needed to do so for scholarly reasons or you were planning on emigrating to Hungary, Finland, or some Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area of Ireland, it might not make a lot of sense to devote time to learning those languages, either.

Languages, like species, evolve.

Except for the Plymouth Plantation re-enactors, no one today speaks the same English that the Pilgrims used for gabbing on the Mayflower.

My mother's native tongue was German. Her family immigrated to the States when she was about four, and the language of the house became, in short order, something that was more or less English. (I say more or less because my grandmother's English was not just heavily accented, it was somewhat fractured - as in "Go by/bei your Mommy.")

Because there was a steady influx of immigrant friends and family, my mother retained some German as a girl/young woman.  She also studied German in high school, as did my Aunt Mary, who loves to tell the story of the nun who didn't quite get German pronunciation. Sister Whatever pronounced the word "schiess" as "scheiss," much to the amusement of the girls in the class who were from German families, and had no doubt heard their fathers mutter an occasional "scheiss."

A number of years after my grandfather died, my grandmother married a not-that-long-off-the-boat landsmann, and I think my mother used her German when she spoke with Pete. When she made a late-in-life trip to Germany, she found that while she could generally understand and generally make herself understood. She also found that she had largely stopped acquiring new vocabulary in the 1920's/1930's, and was thus not up on current terminology, slang, and manners of expression. Instead, she had the German equivalent of 23 skidoo and oh, you kid.

The article doesn't say, but I'm guessing that most of the languages that will die out over the next century are those that are primarily oral, not written. Latin survives because the Catholic Church still kinda-sorta speaks it, but more so because it has a written body of work for scholars to delve into.

Recordings will help preserve knowledge of the lost languages. But the lost languages themselves will be the preserve of scholars with recordings - not used by real people, who will have acquired more practical, statistically speaking, ways to communicate.

And those ways will be changing, too, in the way that languages always do - perhaps none more dramatically than English, with its multiple roots and jumble of words grabbed from all over, and its miraculous ability to create and embrace new words whenever and wherever they're needed. Most of us don't give a nano-seconds thought about where new words come from. If we do give them a nano-second of thought, heck, we just google for the answer.

A year or so ago, I saw a part of some sci-fi movie, set in the near-ish future, in which everyone spoke a hybrid form of English that included words that were, to current ears, still "foreign language." (I don't recall any of them, but I think they were mostly Spanish or Chinese sounding.)

And so it will go.

The world becomes Eyut-less. English will grow and morph.And a hundred years from now, if anyone's watching early 21st century movies, they'll seem like costume dramas in which people are speaking the equivalent of thee-thou Quaker.

Some things are lost. Some things are gained.

We can think about it and say OMG, or relax and say LOL.

At least IMHO.


K. said...

The Cajun singer Zachary Richard has a moving song about the decline of French in southern Louisiana (lyrics here)

There's a long, miserable history of the eradication and near-eradication of languages because of racist and colonial reasons. The Brits made Irish illegal, and it survives today in large part because the Irish have a point of preserving it.

K. said...

The link to the Z. Richard lyrics didn't work. Let's try again:


This failing, cut and paste this: