Thursday, February 04, 2010

Another Lost Language
I came across this London Times article about the last surviving member of an Andaman Island tribe dying, taking with her 65,000 years of culture. And a language.

Languages are as endangered a species at the salt marsh harvest mouse or the giant panda. And equally worth saving.

In college, as a Classics major, I spent several years studying so-called "dead languages:" Latin, ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sanskrit. Useful for nothing, but one obscure proud achievement -- I've read The Iliad in the original. I also studied one modern language, French, which I completely forgot the day after the final exam.

I'm fascinated by languages, and by the way they survive in spite of all odds. When Europeans took over North America and stole land from the native peoples, in addition to smallpox and Christianity, they also made it illegal to speak their own language. Children were forced onto reservation schools and told to speak English only. There were severe penalties for speaking in their mother tongue.

Ironically it was one of these indigenous languages, Navajo, that played a crucial role in the allied victory in WWII. If you don't know the story of the Navajo Code Talkers, you should. Using their ancient language, Navajo Marines set up communications stations throughout the Pacific and spoke to each other, openly over the radio, knowing full well the Japanese were monitoring their transmissions. But the Japanese were never able to decipher the code. It was a simple substitution code, using real Navajo words, (using "turtle" to mean "tank" for instance) but outside of the Navajo reservations, nobody knew their language -- certainly not the Japanese, and so valuable information was able to be transmitted without fear of the enemy catching on.

What I find amusing is that these young men who still spoke Navajo did so because they broke the law. They and their families thought it was important to keep their culture alive and so, in spite of laws against it, they spoke in the old tongue at home. And because so much of Native American culture is passed down orally, many other native languages still survive, thankfully.

For a while, they were in danger of dying. But a new renaissance and pride in native culture, combined with the establishment of tribal colleges, made it possible (and even admirable) for elders to pass on their knowledge. Not just of how to speak Hopi or Lakota, but of other cultural treasures, such as how to weave, make pottery or baskets, and the correct way to conduct tribal ceremonies.

And the ones that kept the flame going were the outlaws. Those who refused to do what they were told. In public they'd learn English, just as the Europeans insisted. But at home, with the doors closed, elders would pass on centuries-old stories in centuries-old languages. And because of that, we haven't lost these linguistic treasures.

Thanks to technology, we'll never truly lose another language. We can record the old ones telling the ancient tales. But it's not the same as having a native speaker around to teach their gift.

Many years ago I was touring the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. At the time they were putting together an impressive archive of Shakespeare being read in every language on the planet. Everything from Hamlet in Swahili to Measure For Measure in Mandarin. I'll always remember the guide mentioning how people all over the world had gotten into the spirit of the challenge and gave their grandparents passages of the Bard to read in whatever language they spoke. They had dozens of African dialects, sonnets read in the many languages of India, and everything from Icelandic to Esperanto. They also had one tape that, up to that point, they had never been able to identify. They couldn't tell what play it was from, but it came from Canada and they thought it might have been Inuit or some other First Nations language of Canada. But they weren't sure. They said for a while they asked tour groups if anyone visiting spoke Inuit, hoping they could play the tape and get an "yes" or "no" as to whether they even had the right language. Identifying the play seemed an impossibility.

I have often thought about that, and wondered if they ever figured it out.

Some day I'd love to see a Cherokee version of Much Ado.

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

Beautiful kept me glued to the screen. Sanscrit, classics major, what an amazing background. What knowledge you have! More, more about languages!!
(And if another country had treated its native people how we've treated the Native Americans, there would a human rights investigation!)