September 8, 2023

Dying languages: Cultures are being eradicated in silence

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Sophie Yu in Australia

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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563.

The place of language at the heart of the human experience is indisputable- yet the speed and ubiquity of the disappearance of some is hurting us all.

‘Epaphra, you are bald!’

‘Celadus the Thracian makes the girls moan!’

‘Phileros is a eunuch!’

As much as these lines of graffiti might sound like insults thrown around and scrawled upon walls by modern-day thugs and criminals, they’re actually taken word for word from the archaeological site of Pompeii.

Yes, they were written by the same Romans who lived 2,000 years ago, who quibbled around in togas and conquered half of Europe. There’s a massive collection of absolutely filthy Latin literature and graffiti out there – this is only a brief selection.

Turns out that they were just as mature as us. No matter how far you travel in time or space, it seems that humans don’t ever change.

Even though Latin may seem like a dead language, we’ve kept it alive in the sense that we can still use it to discover the beautiful, hilarious similarities and differences between their society and ours. Language, to me, is one of the most valuable aspects of the human condition, one that can be used to transcend barriers and bring people together.

When I think of the 7,168 languages spoken on Earth, it translates into 7,168 new worlds for us to explore. But if you took a step back, you’d realise that 40% of these languages have less than 1,000 speakers left.

Every two weeks, a language dies. By the next century, anywhere from 50% to 90% are expected to disappear, erasing half of all human knowledge. And unlike Latin, the language of an empire, most die in silence. As soon as they go, without thought or tears, they’re forgotten by the world, as if they were never there at all.

The problem of disappearing languages is one with an urgency that I can’t stress enough and is becoming increasingly desperate by the day.

In our globalised world, language is often reduced to a tool for basic communication, neglecting its human and cultural significance. Global warming and urbanisation are forcing linguistically diverse communities to migrate, assimilate, and abandon their ancestral tongues. Valuable traditions, and cultural identities, are diluted and lost through generations.

My mother, for example, comes from Fúzhōu (福州), a city in South-eastern China. The mountains surrounding the region, and the resulting isolation means that the ancient local tongue Fúzhōu huà (福州话) is entirely different to Mandarin Chinese, or Mandarin (普通话). Literally translated as ‘common language’, what you most likely think of as the original language of the country was in fact a unified version of the Běijīng ( 北京) area languages, those of the dominant ethnic group forced the rest of China to streamline hundreds of unique dialects.

When China began to urbanise, millions of young people, especially those in rural villages, moved out seeking a better life in cities where just Mandarin was spoken. So, the vast majority of kids in China, let alone someone halfway across the world in Australia like me, are barely able or entirely unable to speak their ancestral languages.

I, for example, have lost even the basic phrases I could utter as a young child. I struggle to communicate with my grandparents, whose Mandarin is quite rusty, and even less with my great-grandparents, who have lived in that village their whole lives. I’m trying to learn now, but there are next to no resources and few opportunities to use this little-spoken language that doesn’t even have a written form.

But despite this, it still holds the traditions, myths, unique beliefs, and superstitions of my family. It’s the lens through which my ancestors saw the world.

When I try to watch Min Opera (an art form endangered in itself) with my grandmother, or when she attempts to explain to me why I shouldn’t point at the moon ‘lest my ear splits open’ in her unique mix of both languages, I often struggle to understand even the basics of what she tries to say, let alone the complex mythology behind each odd yet fascinating tradition or superstition, or even the ability to comprehend the opera itself.

It’s a bitter reality that I will never be able to completely live and breathe their language as they did, no matter how hard I try. I can’t ever understand their way of life, can’t ever fully know my heritage. The lens is blurry, my vision like a cataract- it’s all lost to me.

So just imagine yourself as someone like my mother, who grew up with an endangered language and in just a few short decades, every beautiful turn of phrase, every heart-stirring verse of poetry you’ve ever heard will become unintelligible noise to almost every person on Earth.

This overwhelming loss is not unique to China. Perhaps the most shocking examples of linguistic erasure are those wrought by colonial oppression- such as that of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traditional owners of the land on which I write.

Thanks to colonisation and what has been described as ‘two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival,’ only 120 out of the original 250 Indigenous Australian language groups are estimated to remain, with most critically endangered.

For Indigenous Australians, language is not just a means of communication, but a vessel for the expression of their heritage.

This kind of loss is unimaginable for someone so innately, instinctively connected to their heritage as the words and stories used to describe it disappear, There is even an Aboriginal Australian proverb for this particular kind of suffering: ‘Those who lose Dreaming are lost.’

Whilst it is far from an easy task, language revival is also more than possible with the right community support and effort.

For instance, the Kaurna language of the Adelaide plains, fallen asleep in the 1860s, was pieced together well enough by local elders and linguists that Kaurna Plains School was able to start teaching Kaurna there, in 1992. With their combined efforts, the Kaurna language has once again come alive, regularly used and taught throughout Kaurna Country.

And luckily, the advanced recording technology of our contemporary world has made language preservation even easier. Just one example is a website called Wikitongues– founded in 2014.

They have a mission to document every language in the world by working directly with their speakers, making it possible for people to learn about languages that we may never have even heard of before. Grassroots initiatives such as these are crucial because they take the message from the people themselves- when you listen to a recording, you are hearing the voice of someone who is part of that culture.

Cultures are dying, but people are fighting back and fighting back strong.

So, we too need to contribute to these initiatives and thus enable the people of these cultures to save their languages.

Donate, volunteer, or maybe just spread the word. Awareness and wider recognition are perhaps the most important factors in obtaining more publicity and funding, thus increasing the impact of these initiatives. Your efforts matter, even if they seem small- because simple, easy understanding leads to deep, widespread appreciation, and appreciation leads to preservation.

For those like me with a language at home or nearby, the wisdom of our elders is perhaps our most valuable resource. Make an effort to visit, talk, learn, so that the priceless wisdom held in their experience is passed on.

I’ll keep on sitting down with my mother, practising, and practising the pronunciation of that strange nasal sound, no matter how many times it takes me to get it right.

I’ll keep on watching those unintelligible Min Opera performances and cling on to the few words that I recognise in the hope to learn more.

I’ll keep on listening to my grandmother’s stories of her childhood over the kitchen table while she teaches me to make Bian Rou (扁肉), her little dumplings so much more perfect than mine. And the more that I do it, the less difficult it becomes to understand, and the stories she tells become more and more fascinating, interesting, and beautiful.

Written by:

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Sophie Yu

Contributor

Australia

Edited by:

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Jinn Ong

Deputy editor-in-chief

Politics & Society Section Editor

Singapore | London, United Kingdom

Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine

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