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– a language is a dialect with an army p. 70

We often read about endangered species – snow leopards and giant pandas readily come to mind – but we rarely think about entire ways of thinking – of being human – being lost forever. According to an article in July’s National Geographic called “Vanishing Voices,” we lose a language every two weeks and, so, half of the current 7,000 languages spoken will be gone by the end of this century. Of those 7,000, over 80 per cent have not been documented.

While my partner Erin is interested in what is lost when a language, such as the Tuvan language in Mongolia that still has 235,000 speakers, dies (see a future post), I was interested in a question asked in the middle of the piece: what is it that enables one language to survive while others die?

In thinking about early works from English culture, we remember from high school and college experience that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are much easier to read than the Arthurian cycle tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Though it might not seem that way when pondering sentences like “Of fustian he wered a gypon/ Al bismotered with his habergeon,/ For he was late ycome from his viage” (Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” lines 75-77), here are some lines from the opening of Sir Gawain in the original: “Where werre and wrake and wonder /Bi syþez hatz wont þerinne, /And oft boþe blysse and blunder /Ful skete hatz skyfted synne”!

London was gaining significance during the Middle Ages; being the site of the Tower of London (originally built as a palace, not as a prison), London became the center of politics, commerce, and, ultimately, of the arts. Since Sir Gawain was written in the dialect of the North West of England, that dialect of English petered out and died. London English became a language.

Globalization is the current force uniting not a country together but a whole world. English, Mandarin, Hindu, Russian, Arabic, and Spanish: just six languages are enough to unite us all because the attractions of materialist culture draw more and more people – via commerce, television, movies, and the internet – to jobs in cosmopolitan centres and away from their traditional locales, leaving just a few elders behind who, as they die, take their dialect literally to the grave.

Last year, I got to teach in the African room on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning, part of the University of Pittsburgh. The African room is one of twenty-six nationality rooms that represent some of the ethnic diversity of Pittsburgh. The board in that room has beautifully carved wooden doors that, when opened, display the names of every single language spoken on the African continent. Visitors to the room are amazed to see both sides completely covered with names in font as small as this as language upon language are listed. But how many of those will survive the next fifty years? or even the next twenty?

If you would like to read the National Geographic article, check it out at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text

– Eleni Anastasiou, August 14th 2012