When a language dies

Languages die all the time. Linguists estimate that in the past there were about 15,000 languages on the planet; today there are around 6700, half of which are expected to disappear in this century.

Death expressed in big numbers is hard to feel. It’s like reports of massive killings. The Nazis exterminated six million people; 30 million disappeared into Stalin’s gulags… but they’re just numbers. When your neighbor dies, you feel it in your gut.

 

That’s the way I felt when I read The Economist this week. It published the obituary of Marie Smith, the last speaker of an Eskimo language, Eyak. There’s a saying that every time a language dies, a unique way of seeing the world dies with it. I agree.

 

It’s hard to understand if you only speak one language. Then you tend to think that all languages say the same thing. You may think that “a car is a car is a car.” But when an American thinks “car” (at least, one who’s my age), he thinks “Chevrolet.” It’s the picture he has in his head, with all the attendant emotions. When a Frenchman thinks “car,” he sees a Peugeot; an Italian sees a FIAT, and so on. They’re all cars, but the language places a different feel on them. The same is true for most common words like “home” and “school” and “work.”

 

The article talked about the unique words Marie used as a girl to describe the land she grew up in. After her older sister died, she realized she was the last speaker. She tried to save the language, but she didn’t really succeed. We can write down words like “car” and “home,” but unless we can see them through the intricate web that makes up a language, we only get half the meaning.

 

Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” When a language dies, a little of humanity’s poetry dies with it.

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One Response to “When a language dies”

  1. Mark Says:

    As is often the case on the Web, I came across this article while looking for something else.

    I talked about the loss of poetry when a language dies. The writer of this article argues that we lose a lot more. Take a look at http://globalwatchtower.com/2008/02/20/intl-mother-language/

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