THE LOST HORIZON
As hundreds of languages go extinct,
we are losing a wealth of human culture.
In 1987, when a 94-year-old Native American woman named Roscinda Nolasquez died, an entire culture passed on with her.
She was the last fluent speaker of Cupeflo, the language of an ancient people indigenous to Southern California. A tragic number of languages around the world will soon go the way of Cupeño. In North America, 80 % of the existing native languages (149 out of 187) are no longer being taught to children, which means that they will die out with their current generation of speakers. (Chick Rice@1993 Discover Magazine) On the average one last speaker of an Aboriginal language dies each year in Australia. If nothing is done soon, experts predict that 90% of the world’s 6,000 languages will become extinct or nearly extinct in the next century.
“Linguists face a race against time similar to that faced by biologists, now aware that many of the world’s plant and animal species are in danger of extinction,” writes Jared Diamond .( Discover Magazine Feb. 1993). “Each language is indissolubly tied up with a unique culture, literature (whether written or not), and worldview, all of which represent the end point of thousands of years of human inventiveness. Lose the language and you lose most of that as well.”
Just imagine how many unique and untranslatable concepts we may have already lost, Michael Krauss points out in a powerful story in Simply Living (Aug. 1992). Krauss is one of only a handful of linguists who are confronting linguistic extinction with any seriousness. A professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, he has devoted 30 years to documenting and presenting Native Alaskan languages such as Eyak, which is now down to one speaker. “Might not Eyak and Ubykh (an almost-gone language from the Caucasus region of the former USSR) contain concepts as valuable as the Chinese notion of aligned meridians in the body (which underlies acupuncture) or as spiritually unique as the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Dreamtime?” he asks.
In fact, the most obscure languages are often the most sophisticated. Take the English word “hole”, for example The extinct Aboriginal language Kalkadoon had two different words for the concept: kili meant a hole in fabric and a ndia was a hole in the ground. ~When you think about it, there is an important difference,” notes Barry Blake, a linguist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, writing in New Internationalist (Jan. 1989). One is a hole in a two-dimensional surface, the other is three-dimensional.” Although more languages are facing extinction today than at any other time in history, the loss of language is not a new phenomenon. Thousands of languages have disappeared since humans first began to speak. When the Europeans arrived in Australia in the 18th century, for instance, more than 250 native languages were spoken Fewer than 100 have survived, and only a few of those remaining are expected to make it through the 21st century.
Conquering governments have always, always, known that suppressing an indig-enous people’s language is one of the surest, and lasting, ways to keep them down.
The American government is among the very worst offenders: As late as the 1960s, the Navajo, the largest Native American tribe in the United States, still taught 90 % of its children Navajo as a first language; today, thanks to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decade-long policy of imposing English as a first language, most Navajo children speak only English. The single real chance for lasting linguistic survival lies in a widespread acceptance of bilingual education for indigenous children. Programs like the Indigenous Languages Writing Workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the Inter-American Indian Institute in Mexico City are furiously working to record and distribute native texts, so that Amerindian people may have a chance to learn to read and write their own languages.
Before the European conquest, several native cultures had developed original and distinct systems of writing,” José Matos Mar, director of the Inter-American Indian Institute, points out in an article in Americas (Jan/Feb. 1992). These were systematically and wantonly proscribed and obliterated.” Both Mar’s organization and the Indigenous Languages Writing Workshop are dedicated to getting native languages down on paper to ensure their longevity. The trouble is, there are far too few programs like these around the world. Hundreds of environmental organizations are putting millions into keeping endangered species from vanishing forever. Yet there is no broad-based movement to do the same for languages. Time is running out. What is to become of our precious cultural diversity if we let the languages die?
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993