There are about 6,800 mutually unintelligible languages spoken in the world today. Many languages spoken in the past have ceased to exist and many languages not yet 'born' will come into being in the future. Since the beginning of Homo sapiens, new languages have been constantly emerging while others vanish forever. This is why many linguists say that the total number of actual languages spoken in the world at a given moment of human history is but an small fragment of the perhaps infinitely large total number of possible human languages.
It might seem as though the death of one language is not a particularly serious event but, in fact, each loss is a terrible tragedy. A language is a repository of the riches of highly specialised cultural experiences. When a language is lost, all of us lose the knowledge contained in that language's words and grammar, knowledge that can never be recovered if the language has not been studied or recorded. Not all of this knowledge is of immediate practical benefit, of course, but all of it is vital in teaching us different ways of thinking about life, of approaching our day-to-day existence on planet earth.
In my 25 years of field research on languages of the Brazilian Amazon, I have had the privilege of living for more than six years in villages of the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) and other groups, such as the Banawá (ba-na-WA).
. . . as the last seventy remaining Banawá speakers gradually switch to Portuguese. The Banawás, for example, are members of a select group of Amazonian Indians that make curare, a fast-acting and deadly strychnine-based poison used on blowgun darts and arrows. The ability to make this poison is the result of centuries of knowledge-gathering and experimen- tation. It is encoded in the Banawás' language in the terms for plants and procedures that are in danger of being lost, as the last seventy remaining Banawá speakers gradually switch to Portuguese.
The Pirahã language is unrelated to any other living language. It is famous among linguists around the world for many characteristics that have shaped our knowledge of language in interesting ways. But the Pirahãs have begun to ask me each time I visit why they are so few and why there are so many 'crooked people' in the world. (The Pirahãs view all non-Pirahã people-such as Internet surfers-as 'crooked', that is, bent and not working properly.) They only speak Pirahã and they reject outside languages, such as English and Portuguese, because no other language can be used to communicate with their spirits. For a Pirahã, therefore, to lose your language is to lose your spiritual life, your very means of survival in this hostile world.
There are many groups like the Pirahãs and Banawás, whose languages are threatened by turmoil, loss of identity, and marginalisation. And there are sadder cases. I will mention two.
For decades, the Oro Win (odo-WEEN) people were enslaved by Brazilian rubber traders. The few dozen survivors of these years of suffering just managed to escape their 'patron' in the last half of the 20th century, going to live with the Wari', speakers of a related language in the same linguistic family (Chapakura) near the Mamoré river of western Brazil. In 1995, I arranged to work with three of the last five speakers of the Oro Win language. I was able to draw the attention of the linguistics community to the fact that Oro Win was a distinct language, not merely a dialect of Wari'.
I also noticed that the Oro Win had forgotten much of their language, since their circumstances over the years had forced them to rely on Portuguese and Wari', rather than Oro Win, in order to survive. Yet they speak neither of these foreign languages well. The five remaining speakers of Oro Win now find that they are not only unable to fully recall their own language, they are unable to speak any other language as native speakers. They have lost their history, their community, their cohesiveness with their language. Although they are planting their fields, intermarrying, and getting on with their lives, within the next decade or so, the Oro Win language and all vestiges of the Oro Win as a distinct people, will be lost to them and to us.
Finally, let me mention the saddest story I know. The Suruwahás (soo-doo-wa-HA) illustrate the worst kind of tragedy that strikes when one's language and culture are threatened. The Suruwahá people, like the Banawá, to which they are linguistically and culturally related, make poison for blowgun darts.
. . . just this past summer eight adults and teenagers committed suicide in the same day. However, in the years following their first contact with the outside world, in the early 80s, they have begun to commit suicide, drinking their own curare. Out of a population of only a couple of hundred, just this past summer eight adults and teenagers committed suicide in the same day. No one fully understands why this people is beginning to kill itself. But the answer seems to be related to their sense of fragility and smallness as a people, the idea that their language, culture, and values cannot compete with those from the outside. It is as though they take the death of their community literally.
For many people, like these Amazonian groups, the loss of language brings loss of identity and sense of community, loss of traditional spirituality, and even loss of the will to live. To save languages like Banawá, Pirahã, Suruwahá, Oro Win, and hundreds of other endangered languages around the world will require a massive effort by linguists, anthropologists, and other interested individuals. We need, as a minimum, to identify which languages are endangered around the world, to learn enough about each of them to produce a dictionary, a grammar, and a written form of the language, to train native speakers of these languages as teachers and linguists, and to secure government support for protecting and respecting these languages and their speakers. A daunting task. But a vital one for all of us.
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