Languages Lost and Found

By Brooks, Iris | The World and I, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Languages Lost and Found

Brooks, Iris, The World and I

What will you say if your language is lost? Language--the system of human communication--is something so vital to our daily lives, yet many of us rarely stop to consider or contemplate it. The way we think, speak, and express our ideas is a reflection of our language. As native tongues disappear, it is more than words that are lost, since language is an all-important vehicle for maintaining culture, sharing traditional wisdom, and envisioning the future. Film director Federico Fellini said, "A different language is a different vision of life."

Languages have life cycles: they are born, adapt, and renew (adding new words for new technologies) or sometimes die because they don't evolve. Like endangered species, many languages throughout the world are also disappearing along with their myths, legends, songs, stories, poems, proverbs, aspects of ethnobotany (since many plant names are not translatable), and important ideas passed down from indigenous elders.

UNESCO (the Untied Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) keeps an ever-changing Atlas of World Languages in Danger of Disappearing, and estimates that every two weeks a language dies somewhere on our planet. This startling fact led me (and my partner, Jon H. Davis), to create the film: Languages Lost and Found: Speaking & Whistling the Mamma Tongue, celebrating diverse linguistic and cultural practices around the globe.

As we gathered information about languages lost and found worldwide, we also discovered International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by UNESCO to promote multilingualism, raise awareness of, and re-affirm respect for linguistic and cultural diversity. Since 2000, the annual observation of International Mother Language Day takes place on February 21. This specific date was chosen to commemorate an incident in 1952 when five Pakistani student protestors at the University of Dhaka were shot and killed while promoting the Bengali language movement. And it was this language movement, which gave birth to a cultural identity leading to their independence two decades later. Today Bangla is finally recognized as one of the two national languages along with Urdu, in what is now the country of Bangladesh.

Regional or minority languages are not always part of a political movement; often they are stamped out when the national tongue takes over for economic Issues, geographical reasons, or social prestige. Sometimes embarrassment of elders about their indigenous language keeps them from teaching it to their children. Or young people may move away from their communities to more urban centers where the national language is required. The Tibetans have a saying, which translates as: "Even if you forget your home, never forget your language."

Although globalization, homogenization, and pressure for assimilation destroy linguistic diversity around the world, sometimes a language with fewer speakers and rich oral traditions can be revived (or even reconstructed). Some Native Americans refer to language as being dormant, waiting in the four directions for them to be awakened and recovered. And this is in fact the case since Thomas Jefferson--who spoke English, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian as well as more than 12 Native American dialects--began a Native American language preservation project in the 1790s. His early notes and collections of vocabularies have helped in bringing languages back from extinction or awakening them from a long hibernation.

Some communities take an active role filled with pride in reviving their traditions and dying languages. This is true in the Canary Islands with the language of El Silbo, which is featured in the film Languages Lost and Found: Speaking & Whistling the Mamma Tongue. On the rugged, volcanic island of La Gomera, a whistled language is used to communicate across great distances and difficult terrain. From one mountaintop to the next, the whistles carry much further than the spoken sounds of a voice. …

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