Thursday, July 14, 2011

Does keeping Native languages alive even matter?

The threat of extinction for many (nearly all) Alaska Native languages has received some attention lately, much do to the release of an updates Alaska Native languages map.

I'll leave some others (here, Talking Alaska) to talk about the why and what is going on.

What I get concerned with, whenever this topic comes up and the inevitable backlash of negative commentary, is the idea that the languages should be kept alive at all. Honestly, the idea that it was acceptable, or even preferred, that these languages go extinct was foreign to me until about the age of 15. That was the first time I heard a rant from a peer on "preserving" English as the only American language. Despite the fact that ironies abound when talking about "preserving" the native language of the land (English? Really?) - it is an all-too-common sentiment I've heard expressed.

Other reasons I've heard for letting it go - it's natural selection for it to go extinct, children who learn another language other than English first struggle with learning at a pace with others, there's no value to having different languages, we're spending too much on trying to save languages... though all too frequently the argument just boils down to "we're all American now! Why do we have to dwell on the past?"

I want to address each of these reasons, so I'm going to address a different one each day.

Natural Selection - or "All cultures/languages change"

The above statement is true. Languages and cultures change, and a sign of a dying culture is one trying not to change at all.

But an organic evolution is quite different than a forced extinction. Ask some dinosaurs if they would prefer to evolve into some birds over a few thousand millenia, or if they would like a meteor dropped on their heads. To put it in more human terms, would you prefer to grow out of your job and get promoted, or would you prefer to be fired?

For the most part, what happened to the Native languages of the Americas wasn't a natural evolution. What happened was traumatic, invasive and left no room for real adaptation. In both cases above, true evolution happens over a longer period of time and there is a chosen adjustment to changing environments - choosing what is deemed "better". And in both cases, asteroid or firing, a forced change is fairly terrible to experience and "only the strong survive" doesn't neccessarily apply. Too much of that depends on chance and what the invasive element chooses.

I had a great Tlingit teacher who talked to us about a common Tlingit expression I heard growing up. When someone says "Gunalcheesh" (thank you) - the response is often "Ho ho!" (you're welcome.) I really did hear this often.

What a surprise to learn it didn't mean what I think it meant over 20 years later! "Gunalcheesh ho ho" actually is one phrase, and is used to emphasize the thank you - like "Thank you VERY much." There is no phrase commonly said, traditionally, to respond to thank you, as there is in English. But the "young kids" as she said (she meant my parents generation!) were changing this, and this new kind of word was emerging.

To a language, she said, this is a great thing. It shows the language is alive, and adapting. The "young kids" were choosing to change this on their own, because it suited the younger culture more, and it brought two languages together.

THAT is "natural selection."

What happened here was trauma. It was forced change. It was not an evolution, but something ripped out by the roots. This isn't an effort to place blame, but to emphasize that there is nothing "natural" about being beaten for speaking a language, or being told to speak a foreign language in your own home. It also isn't totally extinct yet for all the languages. And until it is, why would we ever prevent those from fighting that fight?

Next: Is there any real value to knowing these languages?


WakeUpAmerica said...

Yes it matters greatly. The loss of any language is a tragedy. What a boring world this will be if we progress/regress into one culture and one language.

Elizabeth said...

With the language goes the concepts and understandings of the people. The language reflects the culture. The language reflects the world view. Without the language we lose the wisdom of the people. That is a huge loss.

Steve said...

I believe that every language/culture represents a way that a group of humans has found to live in its particular niche in the world.

Another way of putting this is that each culture/language is like a volume in the Encyclopedia of Human Knowledge. Losing a language/culture is like losing a volume of the encyclopedia.

We lose so many things:
a. the knowledge that culture had about how to survive in its particular environment - food, shelter, medicines
b. their unique stories about how the world works
c. their music and art and folk lore

All of these things are, in the crudest sense, bits of data that help us understand what it means to be human. Are there similarities to what is done in other cultures? Are their unique ways of doing of thinking? How might these be helpful to survival of other humans?

In my mind, not worrying about the loss of a language is akin to not worrying about the loss of great works of art or literature or scientific discoveries in the modern Western culture.

I wouldn't want to characterize people who are not concerned about the loss of human language because I think there are probably many reasons why they think this. Some possible reasons:
a. lack of understanding of the complexity and achievement that each language represents
b. personal insecurities about one's own identity
c. ethnocentricity which causes them to devalue all other cultures

I'm sure there are many more.

Eyak Language Project said...

iishuh Writing Raven...

AwA'ahdah for asking a good question and bringing more attention and thought to problem of language loss.

Many Eyaks are now fighting to bring back their language. It is a process. A long one. But there is some hope now that Eyak can be a part of the people's lives today.

Your name, ch’iileh, is part of the latest Eyak WORD of the WEEK. You can hear it on our website:

Writing Raven said...

Gunalcheesh! I hope to share some of what you have on future posts!

fromthediagonal said...

Writing Raven and all commenters have my gratitude.

Throughout history conquerors of all kinds have forced the abandonment of the language and customs of the vanquished and have raped and otherwise enslaved them into submission. The conquerors have not merely been secular kings and emperors, but priests and preachers of religions of of all stripes.

I agree that language reflects both the practical and the philosophical world view of the speakers and when it is lost, the culture dies because the vine of language which entwined the community has been ripped out of the communal mind.

For better, for worse the english language has evolved into a global one. At this stage of commerce and technology it is a necessity that none can nor should deny. But let us look at other countries which have retained their original languages and are freely bi- and trilingual not merely in their spoken but also in their written forms. This is a desirable evolution and should be furthered, not suppressed. Yet, even in the very recent past there have been tribes in Africa,the Amazon and South East Asia who were "convinced" by missionaries to abandon their "Way of Life", only to be left to drift into rootlessness and despair that can only be eased by numbing the mind.

... and we refuse to learn from past mistakes...