Languages on the endangered list
A language disappears from the planet once every two weeks. At what cost?
The stunning news of the pope’s resignation was nearly missed when the announcement was first made. In a deceptively mundane Vatican ceremony, Benedict XVI said he had important news for the future of the church — but he said it in Latin.
ANSA, an Italian news agency, was able to scoop the story thanks to veteran Vatican reporter Giovanna Chirri and her knowledge of the ancient language. You can hear Chirri tell all about it in the video posted on her blog, Il racconto della vaticanista, though you’ll need a solid grasp of Italian to understand her.
The Italian language is alive and well, and a passing knowledge of proper pronunciation is needed just to order a dish of gnocchi. Latin as well, though long derided as a “dead language,” has stubbornly survived due in no small part to its living relevance to romance languages and to the modern-day disciplines of medicine, law and science.
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Other languages are far less likely to survive behind museum glass as Latin has, let alone in the open air of conversation. It is estimated that half of the world’s 6,700 languages will have disappeared by the turn of the next century. The rate of loss: one language every 14 days.
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The phenomenon is global. In the US, the many languages of native Americans are endangered. For example, only five elderly members of the Yuchi tribe in Oklahoma were fluent in the language as of 2005; their parents and grandparents had been punished for not speaking English in schools. In 2007, Enduring Voices (a joint project between National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages) recorded the last speakers of several languages in Northern Australia. “The Atlantic” noted last summer that nearly half of the 3,054 languages documented by Google’s Endangered Languages Project were in Asia.
What causes the extinction of a language? When one tongue becomes dominant in a region, the overridden languages diminish and eventually disappear. Prestige, commerce and the invasion of foreign cultures, peacably or otherwise, deselect languages in Darwinian fashion. But while the theory of evolution favors changes for the survival of the fittest, the loss of linguistic diversity — and the commensurate losses of knowledge, culture and experience — is potentially destabilizing. Like a structure gains strength with multiple pillars, and like a range of investments attenuates the risk in a stock portfolio, stability requires diversity.
We live in a time when people around the world have the drive, the need and the capability to communicate readily, in real time. While there are countless benefits to global connectivity, it may come at a significant cost to heterogeneity.
SEEDMAGAZINE today posted the article “In Defense of Difference” (printed previously), which connects the disappearance of languages with vanishing cultures and species in what the authors describe as “a global epidemic of sameness. It has no precise parameters, but wherever its shadow falls, it leaves the landscape monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous.”More from The Daily Dose:
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SOURCES: National Geographic, Endangered Languages, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, The Atlantic, SEEDMAGAZINE.
Photo: Languages on the endangered list /Franco Origlia/Getty Images
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