What can language-preservation accomplish?

What do we learn when we open unknown languages to others?
What can we teach when we open unknown languages to others?

Last week I met a local Anyuak gentleman from Ethiopia, a people numbering about 200,000-300,000. He is excited about documenting more of his language on-line, and our conversation thrilled me while it made me think deeply about language-preservation and its goals.

I have always been a fan of less well-known languages. When I was looking at universities, I remember thinking about the University of Oklahoma because of their Native American linguistics studies. I especially loved my college course in linguistics field methods that taught us how to study a language in its native habitat. Language death makes me sad and frustrated. At the Polyglot Conference in October I got to meet the founders of Wikitongues, an exciting project striving to document all living human languages.

But last week I was giving this line of thinking a second thought. Am I just acting precious about languages? Languages have been dying for millennia, and but we only noticed it about a hundred years ago. Just like animals species have been going extinct since the dinosaurs, languages don’t last forever.

We learned, though, that when we affect the ecosphere so quickly that species die off very quickly, humanity harms itself. In the same way, studying the linguistic ecosphere—“ecolinguism” as I’ve called it—brings to our attention lesser-known languages. By noticing those languages, we challenge ourselves and our assumptions, while we learn from those on the margins.

My new acquaintance was keenly aware that little exists of his language on the internet or in scholarly literature. Missionaries (Presbyterians and Lutherans) only entered the area in the 20th century, and the New Testament has only existed in Anyuak since the 1960s, and the Old Testament was only translated in the current century. Luther’s Catechism was recently translated, as well.

Hence this language, while obscure, occupies an entirely different place than Somali or even Oromo. Searching for those languages brings up newspapers, news programs, podcasts, and a few grammars. Anyuak, however, brings up nearly nothing. This language only exists in an area we find more and more ephemeral: the voices of its native speakers in its communities.

Would it be valuable for people to know about this language?

As a language-lover, my gut of course says, “Yes!” I told him about the Wikitongues project, which I am a big advocate of, and he is excited about offering a video for it. But I decided to think more deeply about this. Does a “Wikitongues” preservation project have a value? Let me be the devil’s advocate.

I don’t like going to zoos. While they bring animals from far away to a location where we can see them with our own eyes, these animals’ eyes seem to show their dislocation from home. I can appreciate intellectually the educational and preservational mission of zoos, but I don’t always feel it.

Does putting obscure languages on-line create a language zoo: languages performing before our eyes but cut off from their natural habitat? Yes. People cannot learn languages from videos. The Baby Einstein craze of the 1990s made us think that sitting kids in front of Japanese or Spanish videos will teach the children a new language. It didn’t work.

So Anyuak videos will not create Anyuak speakers. What can we learn from them, then?

Let me return, though, to the educational mission of the zoo. The direct, sensory experience of the beauty of another place with different fauna and flora will motivate city kids to think about how they are connected to a greater ecosystem and will foster concern in the for preserving endangered habitats and species. The zoo creates connections to encourage empathy.

I think that through ecolinguism we can do the same with languages on-line. Anyuak videos can begin the process of making connections. These days, when we want to learn about the world around us, we go on line. This is the first step—knowing these peoples, languages, and cultures exist. We have to put an image of them in front of curious people.

Other cultures exist so that we can learn from them. Their languages work differently, they eat different foods, and they set their own priorities. If we approach Anyuak humbly, we can learn about our language as we learn about theirs, and also about our priorities as we learn about theirs. These people can challenge our assumptions about ourselves.

Moreover, as empires grow and globalization swallows whole peoples to assimilate them to a single consumer nation, many cultures wish to do what they can to keep their integrity. They do not necessarily shun technology or even globalization; they just want to keep a core of what they are to pass on to the next generation. These peoples want to know that their great-grandchildren will know their people’s way life and will enjoy the blessings it brought them.

Let us pursue ecolinguism and try to perpetuate the variety of life that we enjoy today. Let us record it for future generations. Maybe one day all of these peoples will be wiped away and the world will be speaking a Hindi-Mandarin hybrid and everyone will be eating processed chicken nuggets. I want people to know that we enjoyed a time of variety of peoples and languages and lifestyles, and we were learning from each other.

Should we preserve more obscure languages? To what extent? By what means?

Photo credit: Meanest Indian via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND


6 thoughts on “What can language-preservation accomplish?

  1. When I think about language preservation, I think about the generations before me in the 19th century who recorded Gaelic and Manx and Cornish, and in the 20th century who learnt it and taught it and promoted it, and now in the 21st century, Manx [Gaelg] and Cornish [Kernowek] are no longer officially dead languages – they’re living and growing and have young native speakers.

    So maybe recording languages like zoo animals seems futile, or learning them when they seem like they’re going to die, but you can have no idea when you do it what might become of the language in three hundred years. It might be the next Gaelg or Kernowek.

    Right now, I’m concerned with Australian languages which are in a similar position to Anyuak. Some, such as Adnyamathanya or Diyeri have few or no native speakers, but have hymns or snippets of Scripture translated by Lutherans; others, such as Nurrunga or Kaurna have a few elders who are faithfully trying to teach primary school children; only one or two, such as Warlpiri or Pitjantjatjara have strong communities and ongoing translation projects. If you Google some of these languages, you might find a few words online, but for the most part you have to go out to the traditional lands – or, in the case of Kaurna, the Adelaide plains language, find a cultural centre. I’m going to try to find somewhere to learn Kaurna (34 speakers) in the latter half of this year, because I think it’s appalling that I’ve lived in Adelaide for twenty years and can’t speak the local language.

    If an online “language zoo” is being made, I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. At least then people will become aware of some languages they had no idea about before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great comments. Thank you. Anyuak is not really endangered at this point. There are speakers in the hundreds of thousands. But it’s obscure nonetheless. In fact, I knew of Walpiri before I knew of Anyuak.

      The question I have about medium-sized languages like Anyuak is future viability. What will happen to languages like this one, of which there are hundreds?


  2. Pingback: Discovering the value of indigenous languages – Loving Language

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