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Thread: Siberia: Knowledge Eroded As Endangered Languages Die

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    Siberia: Knowledge Eroded As Endangered Languages Die

    David Perlman


    A tiny community of reindeer herders in Siberia holds intimate knowledge of the lives, the foraging and the rutting season of their priceless animals, and it's the kind of information that is vital to anyone concerned by the loss of human cultures -- and to biologists worried about the loss of species diversity anywhere in the world.

    Of the 426 members of Siberia's isolated Chulym people, only 35 still speak Tuvan, their ancient language, fluently, and they're all older than 50. Everyone else speaks only Russian, according to K. David Harrison, an adventuresome linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Harrison has lived with the Chulym and hopes to preserve their vanishing language.

    The Chulym can fully describe a "2-year-old male castrated rideable reindeer" with only the single word chary, and to Harrison, that not only shows how ancient languages differ from their modern counterparts, but is symbolic of a worldwide loss in important cultural diversity.

    Harrison was among those who addressed the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco. Of the estimated 7,600 languages known in the world today, half are endangered and could be lost forever within a few decades, he said.

    "Many will go extinct," he said, "and there's a compelling social reason to preserve them, for their disappearance is an erosion of human knowledge."

    The Chulym, for example, have a valuable special knowledge of medicinal plants, of meteorology, hunting and gathering, Harrison said, and that knowledge, which they can describe in their own cryptic language, will be lost to biologists if it isn't reclaimed, he said.

    "The extinction of ideas we now face has no parallel in human history," Harrison says in the book "When Languages Die," recently published by Oxford University Press, "and most of the world's languages remain undescribed by scientists. So we do not even know what it is we stand to lose."

    Like the language of the Chulym, many native tongues exist only in the spoken form and have never been transcribed. Yet rendering them in written words is vital for their preservation and -- hopefully -- reintroduction in schools by willing communities, he said.

    During the same discussion Saturday, Daryl Baldwin of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, offered a more personal view of the issue.

    Baldwin is a member of the Myaamia American Indian tribe that has lived in Oklahoma since its ancestors were forced between 1840 and 1896 to move from what were widespread tribal lands in Indiana and Ohio to Kansas and ultimately to the Oklahoma Territory. Just 3,000 Myaamia live there now, and only 50 tribal members can still use the language at various levels, he said.

    His tribe, Baldwin said, is "economically viable today because of gaming," but he is deeply concerned by the loss of the tribe's language, culture and specialized knowledge. So at Miami University -- named for the Oklahoma tribe -- he is director of the Myaamia Project, an effort to study and reclaim the language, transcribe it for preservation, and learn from the tribe's elders all that is known about their traditional methods of cultivating and using plants and other natural resources.

    "Aya ceeki," he said at the AAAS meeting, "myaaamiaataweenki" -- meaning, "Hello to all, this is the way the Miaami speak."

    In an interview, he explained that as his tribal language is transcribed, a double vowel lengthens a syllable's pronunciation and also its meaning. Thus, he said, "meenaani means 'I drink,' while meenani means 'you drink.' "

    And although his tribe has so few native speakers, the language was transcribed in the late 1600s by French Jesuits, so at least that remains, Baldwin said in his address, stressing the vital connection between his people's spoken language and its identity.

    "For some of us," he said, "our language reconnects us to a human experience shared with previous generations. As a small tribal community that has been negatively affected by 150 years of oppression and cultural genocide, the language helps us heal from that traumatic past by re-establishing continuity and mending a crucial disruption in our lives."


    source

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    The tragic thing about this erosion of human knowledge is that so much of it is intentional, willful. The French have tried to eradicate Breton, the British, Gaelic. The Bureau of Indian Affairs laboured mightily to wipe out Native American languages. The Chinese are trying to suppress the use of Tibetan.

    Not that this is anything new. The Hellenistic Greeks re-named all of the places and personal names of ancient Egypt [itself a Greek coinage] either by "Grecianising" the names or by translating them into Greek. The "Egyptians" never called a city Heliopolis. Its name was "Per On". Both mean "city of the sun."

    The country itself was named k'm't, probably pronounced "Kemet" or something of the sort. Aiguptos ("Egypt") was just the Grecianised form of the name of one of the nomes. [That term is Greek also, but we don't know what the Kemetic people called it.]

    The Greeks had no respect for the languages of "barbarians" and 19th century European scholars had as little for those of "savages." As members of inferior races, they had nothing to teach us. At least, our scholars have got a bit less arrogant over the past century.

    We can, at least, record an endangered language as it was at a particular point in time. We may not be able to preserve it as a living language, however. To live, it must be the birth language and vernacular of a people.

    Church Latin, for example, is a museum piece. Nobody ever learned Church Latin at his mother's knee, nor was it used between the parents at home. It is a linguistic zombie.

    The same can be said of Sanskrit. It has been preserved as a liturgical language, but it is no one's birth language and, if it was ever a vernacular, it was very long ago. It seems always to have been a literary language. Just as Latin gave rise to the Romance languages, so Sanskrit , or possibly Vedic, gave rise to the prakrits: Hindi, Bengali, Gujurati, etc.

    Even though recording a language preserves it only the way that fossilisation preserves a living organism, it is better than oblivion. No one now living remembers how Cornish was pronounced. At least, we can save the sound, what remains of the vocabulary, the grammar, and the syntax of a dying language.

    But, extinction can either be postponed, or, perhaps avoided, if governments will stop hindering people from using their own language .

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    Language abandonment

    Quote Originally Posted by Egil Skallagrimsson
    The tragic thing about this erosion of human knowledge is that so much of it is intentional, willful. The French have tried to eradicate Breton, the British, Gaelic. The Bureau of Indian Affairs laboured mightily to wipe out Native American languages. The Chinese are trying to suppress the use of Tibetan.
    I think far more tragic than the intentional destruction of languages is the intentional abandonment of languages. And that's really how most languages are dying. The kids don't want to speak their ethnic languages, so they adopt more prestigious languages instead. Or worse, parents, not wanting their kids to be tied down to a life of relative poverty, insist that their children learn more prestigious languages instead of their own ethnic language.

    Most languages these days are dying by suicide.

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    Tragic vs more tragic ?

    It doesn't matter which is the more tragic, both are. I agree with you, however. I have seen this in my own family. My brother would have nothing to do with our family's ethnic heritage including the Norwegian language. I have a cousin who even changed the spelling of her name so as not to sound foreign.

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