Stop and say '' ----- ''
If you took a test in Mohawk to say 'the fool comes tumbling down the hill,' you would in every probability, fail. Because in that language --- which is on the brink because white settlers scattered its speakers--- it is a single word: tahotenonhwarori'taksen'skwe'tsherakahrhatenia'tonháîtie.
Nor can we repeat this word with any more confidence than we might attempt to speak the African language of the Khoekhoen's in which clicks act as a kind of consonant in word-building sounds. The language is called N/uu, the line between N and uu standing for a clicking sound. How many speakers of this language do we have left? Two. And they are both in their 80s. Meanwhile, the Siletz language is wondering whether or not to import the word 'computer' into their language or stick with their description of it -- 'brain in a box'.
These are just a few items in a linguist's continuing nightmare as the power of technology and the pressure to communicate as quickly as possible and as widely as possible drives indigenous communities further and further away from their millennia old languages, and deeper and deeper into forgetfulness of them as they pursue ---quite naturally-the possibilities of jobs and careers via a powerful world language which beats back competition, and colonizes, not oceans and land this time, but the screen of the world wide web which has no beginning and no end.
More has been said about pandas, pumas and owls than about what the death of a language can do to people and their histories. Think about it ! What if all your papers and records (and Heaven forbid, your phone to which you've outsourced a portion of your brain) were to disappear and neither you nor anyone else could fix your name, background, family or location? The extinction of languages is a part of the larger picture of a near total worldwide ecosystem collapse. It is not just sounds and scripts and history that we are losing every day. Let's face it many people would ask, 'So what if a language were to disappear?' But what if encoded in that language ( as is often the case) lies knowledge of cures whole or partial to diseases that are raging through populations today? That might one day affect you? Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine say that their research shows a striking correlation between places of rich biodiversity and high linguistic diversity. Language is about naming the world material, seen and sensuous, felt. Languages are verbal botanies and climate change which is no longer a matter of discussion could blindside us to irreplacable things if they disappeared. Even if those plants reappeared, without their names and addresses, we would never be able to identify them. The biggest toll the loss of languages takes on humans, is their capacity to narrate stories and history. With it, a whole way of life falls silent forever.
This brings me to one of the most important books of the decade just published. Written (one probably needs to say composed, interleaved with dreamlike illustrations) by Anvita Abbi it is called Voices from the Lost Horizon and carries a small part of her research in the Andaman islands which she spent years visiting and re visiting to record the songs and stories of the Greater Andamanese. This book is sociocultural capital. This is what working with rather than on speakers of endangered languages is like. Very likely, Prof Abbi is the only researcher who has carried out first-hand field linguistics on all the six language families of India, from the Himalaya to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
An unmistakable note of melancholy informs the Foreword which asks, 'What does it mean to publish stories and songs in a language which no longer has living speakers? To whom to these stories belong?'
The still, sad music of humanity involves us all. As the surviving memories of a 70,000 year-old settlement slowly emerge via Nao Jr,and Boa Sr, through repeated and gentle probing and encouragement, the ethnolinguist Anvita Abbi invites us to consider the bearers of these stories and experiences as symbols of Indian heritage. And priceless. Manmade absurdities of class, caste and religious taboos melt as you listen to the songs and stories available in this book embedded in the pages in audio-visual recordings.
What we have lost !
What we might still lose !
Although human linguistic meltdowns make for a depressing story, peoples' growing desire for self-determination offers hope. An irony worth commenting on is what happened with India and English. The very forces that destroyed many of our traditions (not all of them admirable) and were deployed for cultural and language homogenization in the 18th and 19th centuries, were reversed and harnessed to fashion tools of resistance in the 20th.
Prof Abbi sharply regrets that her research did not take her to the islands a decade earlier when she might have salvaged more of the memories of a tribe that made its way out of Africa to settle here so many millennia ago. The greatest blow to people is the inability to narrate their own histories. Amnesia awaits communities that lose their languages.
Where did we go wrong?
Books like Anvita Abbi's are a revelation, urging us to understand the hidden crisis. We might still course-correct ourselves and alert the world to the fact that there is a collective and immense loss every time a language slides into the dark.
'Biolinguistic diversity' offers tremendous scope for young and patient investigators.
( Mini Krishnan was Translations Editor, Oxford University Press and is currently co ordinating a programme of translations for the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Education Services Corporation in collaboration with eleven private publishers)