Monday, April 13, 2015

Endangered Languages: "Flogging a Dead Horse?"

UNESCO estimates that the end of this century could see the demise of more than half of the 6000 languages that exist in the world today. Most languages that are in danger of going extinct are those spoken in relatively remote regions, by indigenous populations. The importance of languages and diverse tongues cannot be emphasised enough. 

A Manner of Thinking
Language is arguably the most unique feature of the human species. Although there is no doubt that other species communicate with one another, spoken, signed and written language are unique to humans. As such, it plays a fundamental role in shaping our daily experience. In fact, psycholinguists have found that we perceive things a certain way based on the language we speak and think in. Research on colour perception shows that we can see the colours that we have names for, in our native languages. In English, there are eleven basic hues, from which the spectrum of perceivable colour is named. However, the Himba tribe in Namibia only has five basic hues. While English-speakers distinguish between red, orange and pink, the Himba people have an encompassing name for these hues, serandu. Experiments comparing children from the Himba tribe and England show that people perceive colours based on their culture and language. As this research demonstrates, if a language is lost, a truly unique perception of the world dies with it. 

Perception of the world is one aspect that is lost with a language, but what happens to culture? 

Cultural Coefficient
Globalisation today is a contributing factor to the loss of languages. In our attempts to shrink the world and move towards homogeneity, we lose cultural subtleties that exist in part, due to language. Let's look at example of what is at risk, by travelling to the hills in South India. 

The Toda language is of Dravidian descent, and is related to Tamil and Malayalam. In the last century, the population of the Todas has been in the range of 700-1000 people. However, the exact number is difficult to estimate. The Indian Government identifies the Todas as a Primitive Tribe. The Todas live only in the Nilgiri district in Tamil Nadu, and have a unique lifestyle with many traditions. They are a pastoral community, and live in barrel-shaped houses. Often, their houses are beside "dairy temples," as they trade dairy products, and their religion revolves around the buffalo. 
A Toda woman wearing traditional embroidered clothing (left); Todas live in barrel-shaped houses called dogles (right).

Globalisation and the push for modernisation in India have caused a change in the Todas. Although traditionally vegetarian, many Todas now eat meat. Several of them have abandoned their traditional houses for the more common concrete houses. This move away from tradition in combination with the small population of Todas left in the world has resulted in their language becoming critically endangered. This means that the youngest speakers of the language are currently grandparents or older, and they only speak their language infrequently. The Todas stand out in the Nilgiris because of the way they dress and live. If they adopt modern customs, they risk losing their traditions for good. 

Why Save Them?
It is vital to save languages that are at risk of extinction, because speakers have a unique perception of the world, and cultural traditions that few other people share. Since the human experience is subjective, it is crucial to preserve the very means that make us individuals. Losing languages would also mean that we lose idioms that are not easily transferred between languages. For example, a phrase that communicates a lack of understanding in German is "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof", which literally translates to "I understand only train stations''. It is analogous to "This is Greek and Latin to me" in English. Imagine losing idiosyncrasies like that!

Intrigued? Take a look at the list of the 25 most endangered languages today. 

  1. Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version.