In my love of languages, something always calls to me from the realm of the rare or unexpected, so for my visit to distant relatives in Switzerland I wanted to learn the local language of Swiss German, or as they say there, “Schwyzertüütsch.” While Switzerland declared four languages to be official, Swiss German is the most widely spoken. Nevertheless, materials are difficult to find, as I discussed previously here.
This language does not have standard grammar or even spelling, and it differs significantly from one area of Switzerland to another, even though the country is a bit smaller than the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire. For example, I played a bit of a Swiss podcast for a relative and asked what dialect the narrator spoke. “Maybe Zürich with a little bit of Lucerne,” he guessed. Even though these two cities lie only 50 km apart, they each bear unique, identifiable characteristics.
Disappearing cultures cause me to panic. The permanent loss of languages and ways of life make me imagine humanity impoverished. Over the weekend I watched the 2010 documentary, “Voices in the Clouds,” about a Taiwanese-American man, Tony Coolidge, who reconnects to his Atayal (one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) heritage after the death of his mother. Coolidge connected with activists who are working to preserve the heritage of these various cultures from this Island. When I didn’t hear the Atayal language spoken, though, I worried about the viability of this culture in the near future.
I had mixed reactions to this film. On the one hand, the children amazed me as they sang and danced with such passion and skill beyond their years. Their teacher’s success is know internationally. The film also highlighted those who continued traditional handicrafts, especially beautiful embroidery.
On the other hand, I missed hearing the language. Most of the movie was in English and Mandarin. I’m assuming the songs were in the native languages. I did not, however, hear anyone conversing in the Atayal language. When Coolidge met one of the Atayal elders and introduced himself, the woman immediately asked in Mandarin, “Do you speak Atayal?” The answer was “no” and so the conversation continued in Mandarin.
To me, the rest of the culture rang hollow with the language; it felt like looking at a museum. Rather than living and communicating in the most normal way, which happened to be Atayal, the life and crafts and music were about preservation. It was like “living history”–but history all the same. One very old woman talked about life in her mountain village, before she moved to the city: “We used to sing in the trees.” They simply sang; they didn’t sing to preserve a culture.
When a people speak a language with each other, they are still producing new culture. Something essential is preserved with the original language. For example, if a people relocates to another place and starts wearing jeans and t-shirts, the culture doesn’t feel lost. But if the children wear jeans and t-shirts and can no longer speak to their grandparents, the culture is dying. When the kids wear “modern” clothing, but make up songs in their native language, the culture is perfectly alive.
Recently I heard a leader of a local Lakota community say, “If you don’t speak Lakota, you are not Lakota.” I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone, but to challenge his community. Unless the people are speaking in this language, they are acting like their ancestors, not following in their footsteps. Loss of traditional hunting and housing have caused distress in indigenous communities, but the level of worry has risen as they see the viability of the language disappear.
Work to preserve a culture
The hardest part of a culture to preserve is the language. A workshop–or 100–will not make you an expert in a language. It’s a lifelong process of hard, beautiful, social work as you connect with those who connect with the culture on its deepest level.
Those of you who are learning a language, you are continuing a culture. Those of you who want to preserve a culture, learn the language and teach it to others. You and your conversation-partners will benefit by extending the life–both in time and in numbers–of another culture.
How will you continue a culture? Which culture? Why?
I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who is a native speaker of the Kunama language. The Kunama people traditionally live along the border of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Since the war started between these countries, the Kunama community are experiencing a grim fate, and many have left their traditional lands as refugees, and many refugees have expatriated abroad. In this post I would like to focus not on politics, but on the question of what I can do to help the Kunama language.
The language fascinates me. It is a “linguistic isolate,” which means that it’s not related to any other language. (Another example of a more well known linguistic isolate is Basque, spoken in northern Spain and France.) Some linguists have proposed that it belongs to a group called Nilo-Saharan, but others dispute whether this constitutes a true linguistic group. In other words, some people believe that Kunama is related to other languages, but no one can prove it.
Looking at the numbers, I wonder if the Kunama language could disappear in the near future. I found a source that estimated Kunama speakers currently at about 140,000. I would like to know how many of them are monolingual, as every one that I met speak at least four languages. With the pressure to move out of their land, they assimilate more to Eritrean and Ethiopian cultures, and those who move abroad experience even more pressure. My friend’s niece and nephew, for example, who came over to the US as young teenagers, speak little Kunama and speak Tigrinye more often to their relatives. Their children will most likely not speak any Kunama.
Could I help to document this language? I know this is an odd question; it seemed odd to me, too, at first, but then I saw that it makes some sense for me to do so. When I first fell in love with languages, the obscure always struck my fancy. That’s why I adored Ukrainian, Moroccan Arabic, and Syriac. When I was 14 and reading about what linguists do, I learned about anthropological linguists who live among exotic peoples and study their language. In college, I even took a “field methods” class on how to document and describe languages among native speakers. A few years ago, I was having coffee with my old linguistics professor from college, and he challenged me to do some work on Kunama, since so few people had done so. So it actually isn’t my idea originally!
Funny enough, I happen to be well situated geographically to work on Kunama. Significantly, my friend lives in Denver, my home town, so doing “field work” there would not be expensive. Also, the big annual Kunama festival takes place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is one state away. (In case you are wondering, “Why in South Dakota?” I heard South Dakota has the largest population of Kunama because many of the refugees work in the meat-packing industry.)
Practically speaking, though, it would be difficult. I have a job, I want to teach, too, and I have a family–how could I find time to document this obscure language? It certainly wouldn’t pay me anything to do so. (Unless one of my dear readers knows something I don’t . . .)