Marja-Leena Rathje
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preserving languages


Recently NewScientist published an interview of linguist Alexandra Aikhenvald. Here are some excerpts :

"Imagine how different politics would be if debates were conducted in Tariana, an Amazonian language in which it is a grammatical error to report something without saying how you found it out - as Alexandra Aikhenvald tells us its speakers tell her. Tariana is in danger of dying. With each such disappearance we risk losing insights into different ways of thinking."

"Why is it important to preserve these languages?

First, to learn about how people communicate and how the human mind works. What are the categories that are important enough for people to express them in their languages?

If these so-called "exotic" languages die, we'll be left with just one world view. This won't be very interesting, and we'll have lost a vast amount of information about human nature and how people perceive the world.

Second, without their language and its structure, people are rootless. In recording it you are also getting down the stories and folklore. If those are lost a huge part of a people's history goes. These stories often have a common root that speaks of a real event, not just a myth. For example, every Amazonian society ever studied has a legend about a great flood."

"And there are so many languages to work on. A dictionary means that the language is not completely lost and it empowers those who speak the language to preserve their cultural identity."

Aikhenvald also thinks Finnish may be the most difficult language she had come across!

Marja-Leena | 16/03/2004 | 2 comments
themes: Ethnicity, Folk Legends & Myths, Linguistics


2 comments

There are a couple of languages I've heard of, I believe one of a southern native american tribe, which were in danger of dying out but which were resurrected precisely because of a recently-compiled dictionary. Doesn't Gaelic owe its revival to something on those lines?

Nola recently told me of a language whose speakers were down to two people, a brother and sister, the last of their people, but who were prevented by custom from speaking to each other now that they were grown. She read it somewhere; sounds a bit snopes-material, but also likely given the variety of dialects and peoples in the world.

Hi Pericat! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

I've heard a lot of these kind of stories over the years. So much human cultural history is tied to language and myths, isn't it? Saving languages is key to saving many cultures. Many of the First Nations people have been working to revive their language as they rebuild their pride in their own culture. I like how Wade Davis describes his work as championing indigenous culture and advocating a pluralistic and open-minded planet.