Tongue-tied and speechless

Inscription in Catalan
UNESCO’s study of endangered languages has sparked a revival mission to save minority tongues from imminent demise. But experts now believe it is the next generation that holds the key to the future of dialect diversity.

Walk into a pub in the village of Gwynfe, a tiny town in the wind-swept corner of South West Wales, and you are likely to be greeted by a sea of perculiar looks as the locals ramble on in Welsh, but feeling alienated in remote villages in Wales where the locals merrily chatter amongst themselves in Welsh is a quirky delicacy that makes visiting the country special and unique. Whilst the Welsh language saw a revival in the 20th century, thousands of minority languages worldwide are sadly facing decline, and some are on the brink of extinction.

Whilst news of endangered animals and plants continue to dominate the media, the disappearance of tongues remains relatively inconspicuous, irrespective of the fact that nearly 40% of languages across the globe can be considered as endangered, compared to only 18% of mammals and 8% of plants. According to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, nearly half of the world’s languages are predicted to disappear within the next 100 years as every two weeks the last speaker of a language dies, taking their language with them. Christopher Moseley, editor of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger suggested:

“We as human beings should care about this in the same way as we should care about the loss of the world’s variety of plants and animals, its biodiversity.”

Whilst the subject has previously gone relatively unreported, the first comprehensive database of the world’s endangered tongues recently unveiled by UNESCO has publicized the alarming truth that approximately 2,500 languages are at risk, with more than 500 considered ‘critically endangered’ and around 200 have fewer than ten native speakers. UNESCO’s findings has led to a growing awareness to the reasons behind the dramatic declines and seemingly spurred a chase to rescue fading native tongues.

“Linguists are for the first time aware of just how many languages there are in the world and are coming to a better understanding of the forces attacking them,” Moseley asserted.

Globalization is probably the largest force attacking indigenous tongues, as native communities unique identities are crushed by political ideologies and bullied into speaking the language of larger and more dominant populations. Economic demands also play a part, forcing migration to larger towns and cities where unfamiliar languages are inevitably lost.

Many native communities are not helping themselves. The pride of individuality and traditional ways of life that villagers once hung onto are no longer as important. Children in the village contribute to the demise by choosing to speak the language they hear at school and at the movies.

Perhaps languages like Welsh and Catalan are surviving not only because of a determined refusal to loose their own identity and to retain their independence, but also because unlike native tribes in India and Brazil, the Welsh and the Catalans are not experiencing rapid economic transformations. On the contrary, Catalonia is by far the richest province in Spain and for decades has been trying to become autonomous. Giving up speaking Catalan to the Catalans would be like admitting defeat. Catalan Jose Luis Lopez, a 42-year-old bar owner in Barcelona, said:

“Language is the very essence of our identity. Catalonia is a very proud province and we take pleasure in our individuality. Not speaking in Catalan would be like serving a beer without tapas!”

Whilst Wales and Catalonia may be living proof of how support from the state and the determination of the people shows that independent languages can not only survive, but also flourish – many other languages are not so fortunate and are ‘eaten up’ by the so-called ‘killer’ languages, such as French, Spanish and English. In Senegal, Bandial has been replaced by French, the former colonial language and the tongue considered worthy of learning and speaking and conducting business matters in. Another ill-fated language was the Isle of Man’s Manx, whose last speaker, in a desperate attempt to protect his language, recorded various phrases before his death in 1974. 54-year-old Terry Giddens who has lived in Douglas in the Isle of Man all of his life, blames the demise of Manx on the education system.

“At school we were not at all encouraged to speak the local language. All of our school work was in English. I feel regretful that I do not speak the language my father and grandfather could speak.”

Whilst endangered languages have not previously been considered as newsworthy and as important as endangered plants and animals, Dr Harrison, author of the book ‘When Languages Die’, has suggested that without diverse languages we would probably not have the wealth of information we have about nature and biodiversity as we do and the death of languages ultimately leads to the death of knowledge. Dr Harrison commented:

“Most of what we know about endangered species is encoded in languages that have never been written down. So in saving languages we may be able to save species and eco-systems.”

Most people are probably unaware that in the world there are 80 major languages of which 80 percent of the worldwide population speaks and there are 3,500 ‘linguistic minnows’ in which just 0.2 percent of people speak. A growing awareness of the threat to minority languages means greater measures will be taken in order to not only preserve languages but also the knowledge they articulate. One measure is to adequately document a language but is a method that is both costly and time consuming. According to Dr Greg Anderson director of the Living Tongue institute, the process of effectively monitoring a language would take three to four years and cost up to £200,000.

“We have people and communities that desire our help to save their language, what we lack are the funds to do that,” Dr Anderson surmised.

Sadly, when a language dies, a huge part of culture goes to the grave with it. Today, language extinction is at unprecedented levels, but with greater understanding and knowledge, the situation is not irrevocable. Thanks to the efforts of language advocates and the government, the Welsh saw a linguistic and cultural survival made half a century ago. Perhaps the answer to saving the world’s language diversity lies in the hands of the children. The younger generation and their desire to revive their ancestral roots is the key to allowing linguistic diversity and the knowledge that goes with it to survive. Otherwise the impact of globalization will continue to mean the adverse replacement of minority tongues with politically, economically and socially dominant ways of communicating.

Gabrielle Pickard for RT