Life: Native Tongues on the Brink of Extinction

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), February 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

Life: Native Tongues on the Brink of Extinction


Byline: Ian Parri

IN Australia,Mati Ke hovers on the linguistic abyss, with only three people known to be able to speak this ancient aboriginal tongue. Tragically two of them can't speak to each other,brother and sister bound in silence by a code that forbids siblings from communicating with one another after puberty.

In North America the once mighty Mohawk nation watches its own native tongue shrivel into little more than a dusty museum relic, something to entertain the tourists with when they flock to the reservations.

It is believed that more than 5,000 human languages still survive,but that total is tumbling year in, year out. Yet does it all matter?

Many have long argued that it would make more sense for the whole world to speak the same language, presumably American English. And presumably also to share the same culture.

Not that everyone would welcome a global monoculture.

Welsh-Canadian author and journalist Mark Abley,having worked for 20 years in the multilingual hubbub that is Montreal,believes that every language pushed over the precipice into extinction is a huge loss to the human condition.

He has traveled the world seeking out minority tongues that are fighting for their very breath for his latest volume Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages,including -naturally enough -the Welsh tongue that his own fore bears spoke. Yet it was an identity that his own Welsh-born parents sought to keep from him.

When Mark Abley's parents left Wales for Canada, they decided to fore go their Welsh background although both were born and raised in Powys,albeit in the considerably Anglicised area around Knighton.

They chose to describe themselves as English rather than Welsh or British to their new Canadian neighbours,as they did to Mark himself as a youngster.

But it didn't escape his notice that his choirmaster father invariably chose Welsh hymns for the church on Sunday mornings,nor that his mother reeled off Welsh place names fluently while on a boyhood holiday back in Wales.

He feels that his parents wouldn't have been as quick to disown their birthright if they had spoken Welsh as a first language.

``I think they were wrestling with their own roots; there was something about Welshness and about the language that made them choose not to identify with their Celtic side,'' says Abley.

``Roots can be so important,but why do the Welsh choose to become anonymous so quickly? In Montreal there's a huge St Patrick's Day parade every year, while elements of Scottish culture are also well known. There are thousands of people of Welsh extraction in the city, yet theSt David's Society has only perhaps 60 or 70 members. Why not celebrate our Welshness too?''

Abley grew up with an intense interest in biology and endangered species,and at one time thought about taking it up as a career. …

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