Thursday, September 20, 2007

Endangered Languages, Dying Wor(l)ds

I was browsing the New York Times online this evening and stumbled across an article I found interesting, which for once intersects in very specific ways with my own interests.

In "Languages Die but Not Their Last Words", journalist John Noble Wiliford talks about the endangered languages in the world today, noting that an endangered language falls out of use approximately every two weeks. An excerpt:

Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.

New research, reported yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
It's a bit disconcerting to see the language in which so much of the article is couched. I'm much more used to "endangered species" than "endangered languages." However, there's something about the urgency in the article that touched me:
In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore, said that more than half the languages had no written form and were “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” Their loss leaves no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.
It seems like a part of what's at stake in the article isn't simply the languages that are threatened; rather, there's a very specific, human cost in their loss. I'm inclined to think that there's a degree to which this shares some focus with other recent posts and comment threads here. The idea of a "deep past" that precedes written history is transformed in this article about languages, leaving open the possibility that there is, increasingly, access to entire histories and peoples lost with the passing of the spoken languages that preserved them.

In a talk with friend (and sometime commenter on this blog) LJS this afternoon over coffee, the subject turned to translation. I've been studying, and attempting to produce, literary translations of Old English poetry over the past year -- a side-effect of participating in two translation workshops, as well as the presence of the new Center for Literary Translation here. I've come to explain my difficulties with literary translation as a problem with poetics: I can be a very good writer, but only of a specific genre (literary criticism). I will, in short, never be a poet.

LJS's response was interesting. He discounted genre as a factor -- rather, he explained my problems with translation as a function of loving language. More precisely, a function of loving Old English more than I'll ever be able to love modern English. I'd never really thought the problem through in those terms, but it makes some sense. I nearly always go for the too-close-to-the-original in my translations. I think it's because I'm worried what my inability to be truly faithful to the original language I'll lose something vital. Or worse yet -- something still living in the dead language.

The end of the article suggests that a large part of the loss of these languages is due to languages that, like modern English, have acheived global use:
Another measure of the threat to many relatively unknown languages, Dr. Harrison said, is that 83 languages with “global” influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants.
I spend a lot of time with dead languages. In fact, I probably spend too much time with them, given that I prefer to think of them as languages not currently in use. Thinking about my difficulty with translation and Old English, I can't help but wonder if my ambivalence with translation of late is a part of the larger problem: I don't know if the necessity of translation helps or hurts these dying languages, particularly when there is no way to keep them from being pushed out of linguistic currency by the 83 global languages.

In some sense, I think I'm feeling the sadness of losing access to the worlds these languages point to -- the histories that will never be told, the stories that won't be passed down. The worlds that will be left behind, forgotten, because the voices that could speak them fell silent. Preserving the languages is important, and these linguists are performing a service to future study, but how much can they really preserve?

I can't help wondering -- with no hope of even a (silent) fossilized remnant to be interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) afterwards, what happens to stories that aren't passed down? And when these languages die what happens to the worlds and peoples they -- however partially and fragmentedly -- represent?

File that under questions I'm not sure how to even begin answering.

Cross posted at In the Middle