Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.
Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.
What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:
Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?
These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:
Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)
One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).
Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.
The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:
Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?
These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.
If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'
Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.
This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.
These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.
From the Tuvan langauge:
From the Aka language:
From the Seri language: