21 Feb 2013

Why We Should Care About Dying Languages

Imagine being the last person of your people to speak your language. With no possibility to pass on the wisdom of your ancestors, the cultural heritage, your way of expressing your love, your humour, your life.

According to the UNESCO, it is estimated that, if nothing is done, half of our over 6000 languages spoken today will die out by the end of this century. This suggests that approximately every two weeks an elder passes away and with him the last syllables of an ancient tongue. India, for instance, faces a crucial problem of language extinction: over 190 Indian tribal languages are in danger, most of them concentrated in the far-eastern part of the country. The reason for this is the absence of written literature and lack of opportunities to use the languages as they are not used for administrative and educational purposes.

Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnobotanist, anthropologist and author, is fully aware of our rich cultural diversity and the many (dying) languages. Although he does not agree with the linguistic relativity ( i.e. that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualise their world), he explains in a video from 2003 that a language is “not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules”, but a “flash of human spirit”, “a vehicle through which a soul from each particular culture comes into the material world”. It is through language that we can express our different ways of thinking, our different ways of being, our dreams, hopes and inspirations.

Davis is described as ‘a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity’ by the National Geographic Society, one of the largest non-profit educational and scientific institutions in the world. He explains his view with the example of a tribe that is located in the Colombian northwest Amazon: the Barasana people live by linguistic exogamy. This means that a man must marry a woman that speaks a different language than him, otherwise it will be seen as incest. According to the Austrian anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff, it is the most important social rule in this Tucanoan group. Women must move into the men’s household and due to the intermarriage, six or seven languages are spoken in just one longhouse. Apparently no one practises a language, they simply listen and then begin to speak it.

Nevertheless, there is a rising consciousness of the problem and many efforts are made to improve the situation and prevent languages from dying out. One of the many ideas to support the preservation for the world’s linguistic diversity is the Italian Nosside World Poetry Prize, a multimedia and multilingual award. Last year, 370 participants from 70 nations entered the global poetry competition for unpublished works and the international jury priced many national authors. The contest is sponsored by several international institutions, for example the UNESCO.

Watch Wade Davis’ video ‘Dreams from endangered cultures’:


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