Imagine if you were the last person in the world who spoke your language. You would live with the knowledge that when it was your time to go, the world that lived with the words you used to speak and think and dream would be gone forever.
On 24 January, the BBC ran a story about Marie Smith Jones, who passed away at the age of 89. She was the last of Eyak-speaking people of Alaska. For the last fifteen years of her life she knew that when she died the entire culture of her people, hundreds if not thousands of years old, would disappear. So she did an extraordinary thing. Working with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, she put her knowledge of Eyak to the written record, something which had never been done before. Now it can be more than just a memory. Her language stands an outside chance of a second life.
But it is just an outside chance. Because the Eyak language is one of nearly 20 native American languages in Alaska alone that are on the endangered list. It is little more than 500 hundred years since Europeans first set foot in the Americas and just over one hundred years since the United States census declared the western expansion over and the internal frontier closed. In that time, the pathetic remnants of the Native American peoples have been herded and marginalized into the barren fringes of a continent.
The phenomenon is global. Language experts believe that there are approximately 6,000 languages remaining on the planet. There is no common understanding of what a language is, so this figure is an approximation. So is the number of languages that those same experts believe will be extinct in the next 30 years: 3,000. That means that, at present rates, fully one half of all the languages spoken around the world will be gone by the year 2040. For example, in France, there are about 500,000 speakers of the Breton language over 50 years of age, but fewer than 2,000 are under 25 years of age. It is highly likely that this language, which is related to Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic in the British Isles, will die out in the next half-century.
Put it another way, three thousand people, either alive today or to be born to someone living today, will likely be the very last speakers of half of all the human languages that remain.
Language approximates with culture and the more languages there are the greater the cultural diversity. The loss of languages means that this diversity is at risk, and with it the wisdom and particular memory of the world. Now pause before you digest the next piece of information: 70 per cent of 400 U.S. biologists surveyed in 1998 believed that the earth is in the middle of (most probably) the fastest and (possibly) the largest mass extinction of flora and fauna for 250 million years. Biologist E. O. Wilson estimated in 2002 that if current rate of human destruction of the biosphere continues, one half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years. The two extinctions, natural and cultural, have a common enemy. They are both being caused by modernized civilizations and civilizations that want to become modernized.
According to the UNDP Human Development Report for 2004, titled Cultural Liberty in Todayâ€™s Diverse World, â€œcolonial administrators and missionaries, sometimes for administrative expediency and sometimes for prosletyzing reasons (translation of bibles in particular), elevated individual dialects to the status of languages and narrow local groups to the status of tribes.â€ In other words, colonialists and missionaries changed languages and language use, typically with the effect of reducing language diversity.
Something like this has occurred here in Zambia over the last 100 years, says Daniel Posner of UCLA in his 2001 paper: â€˜The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Cleavages: The Case of Linguistic Divisions in Zambiaâ€™. Posner explores how the tax and industrial policies of the colonial British, coupled with missionary activity, created convergence around a few â€˜languagesâ€™ where before there had been as many as 78 languages and dialects. This has left several tongues gasping for air in modern Zambian life. Moreover, Zambia remains an unusually urbanized country and language diversity is threatened by this. The coming together in towns and cities creates what John McWhorter, author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language calls, â€œlanguage slurry.â€
The problem becomes more acute because most, if not all, of the tongues left for dead in rural areas offer little by way of commodifiable value. Northern multinationals rush to establish proprietary rights over gene pools of flora and fauna running out of space in the Global South, but there are very few institutions lining up to support Zambians concerned about preserving Ambo, Iwa and other local languages for posterity.
All of this is sad to observe. I grew up in England of Bengali parents. So while my mother tongue is English, my motherâ€™s tongue is Bangla. English is in no danger of dying out any time soon, thanks to two of the most significant expansions of our times: of colonialism and of The Internet. The language has the rare distinction of outgrowing the ethnic group from which it came, as Nicholas Ostler explains in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. It is now the first, second or third language of well over 300 million people.
Bangla is the language that inspired a movement that led to a countryâ€™s independence. The movement demonstrated that mother tongues should be celebrated and, if necessary, defended. Bengalis did the latter with their blood. The date chosen to commemorate International Mother Language Day is therefore 21 February. On this day in 1952, a group of students on Dhaka University campus were gunned down by security forces while claiming their right to use their mother tongue rather than an imposed lingua franca. Today the language has up to 230 million speakers in three Bengals: independent Bangladesh, Paschim Banga state of India, and the Bangla-speaking diaspora around the world.
International Mother Language Day deserves celebration in Zambia. The country has worked hard to establish and maintain political unity over the years. But as other societies are learning too late, it would be a tragedy if this hard-fought unity should be maintained at the expense of the variety of languages and dialects that have long called these lands home.
The Day will mean many things to many people, and so it should. For those of us who belong to majoritarian language groups such as English and Bangla, it will be an occasion for pride in our histories old and new, and in the richness and achievements of our lexical universe. For the speakers of the 3,000 languages on the brink, it will be an occasion to renew resolve to protect what is at risk of slipping away. It is, of course, too late for those languages that we have altogether lost. Languages like Eyak from what is now Alaska.
Nevertheless, I would like to think that all languages are equal from an ethical point of view, even those that have died. If you do too, then I hope you will spend a moment on 21 February this year to lament the passing of a brave old woman from Alaska called Marie Smith Jones. When she left us last month, we were all diminished.
This is a guest post by Hannan who is launching his new blog East of the Equator.
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Filed in: British Identity