What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

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.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.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:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.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:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

"What the world wants today" is both that elusive peace, and a Coke, as the commercial famously puts it. Buying a Coke is one form of peace, I guess; but how else do we define it?

War, in the name of peace...

The thought is bewildering, paradoxical, and also quite present in our world, both now and in the past--even if it has been defined differently throughout time. Recently, Patrick Cox mused over the meaning of the word "peace" in his podcast, The World in Words (which I've cited several times before--great listening), starting with President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In itself, this oratory does a number on the definition of the easily-rattled-off but elusive-to-conceive word.

Here's a segment from President Obama's speech:

"We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or on concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem, it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King; but as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, and I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world."

Maybe it's a side-effect of my historiographical debates class, where we examine the words of great orators of the past, and where we're reading and arguing weekly about Hegelian and Marxist views of history as an up-hill march towards perfect societies, but President Obama's speech incited several things in my mind: as Patrick Cox says in the podcast, these things, phrases like "evil exists," and "morally justified use of force," are all things we have heard before in political speeches. Joseph Stalin defended force and violence many times, as a means of improving the Soviet state; Mao Zedong incited suspicion and approved violence amongst his Red Guard youth devotees. These are keywords used by politicians that justify a nation's actions, and also ensure that the people are enthralled and uplifted by the leader's response to evil. This means of inspiration, that we are improving, that we see our goal in sight and so violence is justified, appears throughout political oratory, and indeed nearly every leader in every country in the post-Enlightenment modern world harks back to the idea that we are improving, moving towards something better. Classic, and proven to be effective.

The remarkable thing about this speech, which makes it quite unique among political addresses, is that he is accepting the peace prize; he is not rallying his countrymen, but is speaking to a large crowd of educated people, many of them not Americans. But the President readily admits that he is no Martin Luther King, Jr., nor can he defend a nation using only the practices of history's peacekeepers. His speech certainly adds another meaning to the word peace, Cox argues, making it "a bit more slippery" than it had been. Obama: "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." Pause, and consider.

One may write the whole thing off to being a political speech written to speak to both sides, the peacekeeping America and the two-wars America, and indeed the sentiments somehow seek to provide both at once. And that is not such a terrible thing, for nothing exists in a vacuum and nation-states tend to be bundles of juxtapositions.

So how do we define peace, within ongoing global disunity and war? What is its nature? Does it in fact, contain war, as has been argued? "The word 'peace' is either taken as a given or used very lightly," said Dennis Ross, a U. S. diplomat and author. Can you have a commitment to peace but never come through, or in fact, consistently perform opposite to such peaceful notions? And on a larger scale, is progress the ability to reduce both good and bad in the world?

Listen to the entire discussion and hear the speech in the World in Words podcast #79 (the peace discussion begins around 11:30 minutes in). Then tell me what you think.

Things you didn't know about Wikipedia

Lately, I've been learning a lot about the world's languages and the way language and words mingle throughout cultural relations and our modern lives. It all comes out in the weekly podcast "The World in Words," available free from the same people who do "The World" broadcast on NPR. The half-hour show is filled with trivia on languages, odd words, untranslatable phrases, political jargon, and other points of interest. The last two weeks I've learned some random interesting things about Wikipedia. While the English Wikipedia has over 2.8 million entries, the next-largest is the German Wiki, which lags far behind that in size. However, host Patrick Cox points out that it is no less thorough in its encyclopedic knowledge. What the German version is lacking that accounts for the massive size difference is the thousands upon thousands of "stubs" and entries explaining very tiny elements of American or English pop culture. Stubs themselves are incomplete articles that might eventually be deleted, defining very trivial parts of culture. And the other, more extensive but equally as trivial entries might be credited to people who are experts on very specific things-- say, for instance, if I wrote a whole huge entry on every detail of the Home Alone movie series. The distinction between German-language Wiki and English-language Wiki is this stringent weeding out of trivial knowledge. The German focus is to make Wikipedia the same caliber as any printed, published academia-based encyclopedia. The English-language one is, therefore, much larger, and filled with much more specific detail. This is not a bad thing-- plenty of times I have needed a random factoid answered that has been a bother in my head, and have eased my mind with Wiki. It's just quite an interesting cultural thing to consider.

It also baffled me to learn of the barriers that some language systems have overcome to streamline their own Wikipedias. Chinese language, for example, has two writing systems-- traditional characters and simplified characters (the latter has been pushed and taught since the mid-20th century). Some articles were being written in simplified, some in traditional, and the characters are different enough to cause a problem for readers who can't read both systems. Chinese programmers hastily developed a way to duplicate the articles into both, solving the issue. The predicament only gets tougher for Kazakh speakers, though: they have three writing systems. This is an element of global language barriers that I have never thought of before-- that one language when spoken could have three possible translations into writing. The language in Kazakhstan can be written in the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russian), the Roman/Latin alphabet (like English), and in the Arabic right-to-left format. Adapting a system this complicated to modern world is breathtaking.

And one more trivial bit of knowledge lies in the Spanish-language Wiki. Drama erupted in 2002 after a mere mention of putting advertising on Wiki article pages enraged a group of contributors; they split from Wiki and began their own user-written encyclopedia Web site, Enciclopedia Libre. Eventually things were mended (because it had been literally just an online conversation that contained the thought of advertising), but the remarkable thing is the power of the individual in something as big as Wiki, on something so big as the Internet.

I am, after all, just one person, putting my thoughts here. :)