12 Mar What dies with the disappearance of a language?
Every language is a key to understanding a culture. From mythological stories to art, weather patterns or even medicinal secrets, the sharing of knowledge is essential for human development. When a language disappears, the sharing of this knowledge and how a certain group of people sees the world is no longer possible. Have you ever stopped to think why we celebrate the year 2019 when the Chinese are celebrating 4717? And why the Jewish people are already in 5779? There may be other cultures with different years, or some New Years which have been forgotten with the disappearance of other languages.
Every culture’s customs and traditions are essential in understanding the evolution of human beings as a species. In Greenlandic, an endangered Eskimo language, very long words were commonly used to describe specific occasions. For example, they had many definitions for different types of wind. Even though linguists are proactively trying to keep this language alive, around 30% of its vocabulary is already believed to have been lost.
``The wisdom of humanity is coded in language. Once a language dies, the knowledge dies with it.``
It may seem overly dramatic, but it’s true. At the conference of the National Association for Interpretation, Nancy Rivenburgh even said that “Medical science loses potential cures; Resource planners and national governments lose accumulated wisdom regarding the management of marine and land resources in fragile ecosystems.”
For example, never-before-documented plants may exist whose characteristics are known by certain peoples. Without a means of contact and an understanding of the language and culture, sharing such knowledge becomes impossible.
Imagine you could no longer express yourself in the language you have always known. No one else could speak your language to describe the world in the same words. Strange, don’t you think? Even stranger would be being asked to write down all of the vocabulary and grammar you knew so that it wouldn’t be lost forever.
Unfortunately, many people have been in a situation like this, and recovering a language after reaching this point is nearly impossible.
Marie Wilcox realized that her mother tongue, Wukchumni, was starting to disappear. She is the last fluent speaker of the language. Over seven years, she worked on creating a dictionary with as many words as she could remember. She taught the language to her daughter and grandson, who are now teaching it to other inhabitants of their village. This is a success story in revitalizing a language; however, this unfortunately does not happen in the majority of cases. Saami, for example, is a language that was lost after the death of its last two native speakers while it was in the process of being documented.