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Have you ever wondered how language affects the way you see the world or even they way your personality is formed? I know I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most of us who only speak one language are missing out somehow, but what about a language only shared by 1,000 people? What happens when that language dies?

Recently, my writing partner Eleni Anastasiou blogged about a National Geographic article on languages. Her focus was on what allows a language to survive, while my focus will be on what happens when a language dies. In fact, the author of the article “Vanishing Voices,” which was published in the July, 2012 issue of the magazine, asks the question: “What is lost when a language goes silent?” This question caught my attention because, I think, my heart has always leaned towards the underdog, the marginalized and soft-voiced among us. I was surprised to read that a language dies every 14 days, although 85% of the world’s languages have not been documented according to field linguist David Harrison (quoted in the article). Some of these languages have been swallowed up by more dominant world languages such as English, Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish.

Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that the process widens our perceptions of reality. It did for me when I studied Spanish in high school. Language is not simply about communicating concrete ideas such as “Can I sit in that chair?,” or “I think I’ll order the borscht.” It is also about communicating  far subtler and more complex ideas such as expressing a particular culture’s perception of time. For example, the Tuvans, who live in Mongolia, have a very different understanding of time than Westerners. The past is ahead of them and the future is behind them. Their language reflects this interesting perspective. It would be impossible for a Tuvan to translate the phrase, “Looking forward to meeting you.” It is these unique cultural worldviews that endangered, minor languages encapsulate. The death of a minor language means the death of a particular culture’s set of beliefs not only about physical reality, but spiritual reality as well. There is a Tuvan word for “a spiritual place within” (Khei-át). One could translate this word into a dominant language, but something would be lost in translation.

I remember the first time I traveled to a foreign country by myself. I was in my early 20s; a friend and I traveled throughout Central and Eastern Europe for one month. I had studied Spanish for four years in high school and French for one year in college. I tried to use my knowledge of Spanish while traveling through Italy, mainly relying on hand gestures to communicate. In the U.S., speaking my native language of English, I am highly verbal. I rely on my ability to communicate effectively and sometimes eloquently. However, when I travel overseas, I always try to converse in the language of the country. I had not realized how much of my outward personality relied on language until I couldn’t communicate fluently. While passing through Germany, my friend and I stopped at a local market to buy some water and snacks. The only German word I could say with confidence was bitte (thank you). As a child, I hated it when my parents or grandparents would push me into saying ‘thank you’ to a stranger who said I had a pretty dress, or to a distant relative who bought me a present for my birthday. It’s not that I wasn’t thankful, but I wanted to come to that sentiment in my own time. In English, the words ‘thank you’ held a weight and emotional past I wanted to forget, but I could say the word bitte with abandon. I knew what it meant, but the word didn’t hold the same significance. I felt freed from past linguistic baggage. While in Italy, the musicality and beauty of the language flowed through me. My voice rose a pitch while remaining soft and feminine. Italy’s rich and sensual culture is fused with its language, and it was this cultural history that spoke to me and through me during my visit.

A river in Padua

In many tribal communities, language is identity. For example, Aka is a language spoken by 1,000-2,000 people in India. The Aka language has been and continues to be shaped by the dynamic culture of the Aka people. The phrase shobotro vyew means “to calculate bride price using twigs,” though the English phrase ‘bride price’ doesn’t capture its full meaning. So, what happens when a language dies? According to Russ Rymer, the author of the article, “its death shakes the foundations of the tribe.” Language shapes us and is shaped by us. It allows us to classify the world around us in order to make sense of it. When a language dies, what is lost? There is no neat answer to this question, but it is one that has lodged  itself into my consciousness. I can only hope that linguists continue to document minor, endangered languages, and that the elders (keepers of these languages) within these cultures continue to inspire their young to tend them.–Erin Dougherty, August 26th, 2012.