The Power of Language

Stephen DeAngelis

September 15, 2009

In a previous post I wrote about The Power of Words. In that post, I quoted Peggy Noonan, who wrote:

“A speech is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep! A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

Kari Lydersen reminds us that languages are more than just words and when we lose a language more than just words are lost [“Preserving Languages Is About More Than Words,” Washington Post, 16 March 2009]. She wrote her article the day before Saint Patrick’s Day when all the world shouts, “Erin go braugh.” Of course, if Irish (also known as Gaelic) were a completely dead and unknown language, we wouldn’t know that that simple phrase means “Ireland forever,” “Ireland ’till doomsday,” “Ireland until eternity,” “Ireland until the end (of time)” or “Ireland until the Day of Judgment.” Lydersen laments that “there are only about 30,000 fluent [Gaelic] speakers left [in Ireland], down from 250,000 when the country was founded in 1922.” She continues:

“Irish is expected to survive at least through this century, but half of the world’s almost 7,000 remaining languages may disappear by 2100, experts say. A language is considered extinct when the last person who learned it as his or her primary tongue dies. Last month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched an online atlas of endangered languages, labeling more than 2,400 at risk of extinction.”

If you don’t believe that the loss of a unique language matters, just think about the history of Egypt recorded in hieroglyphics that was lost for so many centuries before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. That fact that we all know about the Rosetta Stone indicates how fascinated we are with lost languages. As the history of Egypt demonstrates, the extinction of languages is not new.

“Language extinction has been a phenomenon for at least 10,000 years, since the dawn of agriculture. ‘In the pre-agricultural state, the norm was to have lots and lots of little languages,’ said Gregory D.S. Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute. ‘As humans developed with agriculture, larger population groups were able to aggregate together, and you got larger languages developing.’ Languages typically die when speakers of a small language group come in contact with a more dominant population. That happened first when hunter-gatherers transitioned to agriculture, then during periods of European colonial expansion, and more recently with global migration and urbanization. The spread of English, Spanish and Russian wiped out many small languages. ‘As long as people feel embarrassed, restrained or openly criticized for using a particular language, it’s only natural for them to want to avoid continuing to do what’s causing a negative response, whether it’s something overt like having your mouth washed out or more subtle like discrimination,’ Anderson said. Russian-language-only policies have virtually extinguished many Siberian languages, including Tofa, which lets speakers use a single word to say ‘a two-year-old male, un-castrated, ridable reindeer.'”

There is, of course, a tension between the desire to preserve languages and the desire to communicate better. Having a few “standard” languages like English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese is important for international trade and diplomacy. Even more important are international languages like mathematics. It is unfortunate, however, when a standard language replaces a native tongue rather than complements it. It’s entirely understandable why countries have “official” languages; but it is an entirely different matter when governments deliberately set out to extinguish a language. The United States does not have clean hands in this area. Like so many other nations, it has deliberately targeted languages for extinction.

“In the United States and Australia in past decades, the government forced native peoples to abandon their languages through vehicles such as boarding schools that punished youth for speaking a traditional tongue. Many Native American and aboriginal Australian languages never recovered. The United States has lost 115 languages in the past 500 years, by UNESCO’s count, 53 of them since the 1950s. Last year, the Alaskan language Eyak disappeared with the death of the last speaker.”

The United States found out how useful native languages can be during the Second World War when it used native-speaking Navaho Americans as radio talkers to pass along sensitive information over unsecured frequencies. The only truly lost languages, Lydersen reports, are those that have no written form. There are good reasons for wanting to preserve native languages.

“Preservation proponents say there are cultural and pragmatic reasons to save dying languages. Many indigenous communities have in their native tongues vast repositories of knowledge about medicinal herbs, information that could provide clues to modern cures. The Kallawaya people in South America have passed on a secret language from father to son for more than 400 years, including the names and uses of medicinal plants. It is now spoken by fewer than 100 people. Preserving languages is also key to the field of linguistics, which could offer a window into the workings of the brain.

I have read that a language is rated endangered when 30% of its children stop learning it. The reason is simple, when a language skips a generation it is difficult to recover.

“‘When you skip a generation, it’s hard to pick a language back up again,’ said Douglas Whalen, president of the Endangered Language Fund, which gives grants to language-preservation projects. ‘You need a community that is really committed and will bring children up from birth in the second language, even if they themselves are not the most fluent speakers.'”

As noted above, it’s difficult to save a language that has no written form. There is a Korean group that would like to help and, at the same, make Korean characters more internationally recognized [“To Save Its Dying Tongue, Indonesian Isle Orders Out for Korean,” by Tom Wright and Gordon Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 11 September 2009].

“In an elementary school here on the remote Indonesian island of Buton, a teacher named Abidin recently began to show students how to write their endangered native language — in the Korean alphabet. Mr. Abidin carefully copied some Korean letters from a textbook onto the blackboard and asked his fourth-grade class what they spelled in their Cia-Cia tongue, a Malayo-Polynesian language related to others spoken across Indonesia. ‘I eat fish,’ they replied in unison. The students know little about Korea, 3,500 miles north of their home here. Until a few months ago, none had met a Korean and most still have trouble locating the Korean peninsula on the world map pinned to the wall of the dusty schoolroom. But the students have become the latest guinea pigs in a quest by South Korean linguists to demonstrate that the world would be a better place if just a few more people used the Korean script known as Hangeul. Koreans are extremely proud of Hangeul, invented by a Korean king in the 1400s. And they are determined to win it a broader following abroad — challenging Chinese characters and the ubiquitous Roman alphabet. The main target: ethnic minorities whose own languages have no writing of their own and are in danger of dying.”

There are a number of groups dedicated to helping preserve dying languages — even if only in written form. What’s just as important as capturing the actual language is capturing the knowledge that has been passed down through generations in those languages — because the power of language is more than just words.