Island of Memory

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Interactive map of global languages at EndangeredLanguages.com

Interactive map of global languages at EndangeredLanguages.com

When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of tagging along on an archeological dig on the California coast. The goal of the dig was to salvage parts of a coastal Miwok village in danger of disappearance due to cliff erosion. The village had been inhabited until the early years of the 20th century, but was completely abandoned. All manner of interesting objects turned up, including a few that were difficult to identify.

An elderly woman who had been born in the village was asked to stop by, and one evening we all sat around a large campfire with her while she helpfully explained what the inscrutable finds were. Simple things, once you knew their use. A smoothly notched pebble was a fishnet sinker, and so on.

She had words for each item that were carefully transcribed and recorded by the researchers – the number of people who spoke this woman’s language was diminishingly small, even 30 years ago. In any case, she no longer knew any living speakers since her brother had died many years earlier.

I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I do remember thinking how sad and strange it must be to have your language and the world it describes shrink until you yourself are a small island of memory that no one else can share.

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

A language goes silent every two weeks, along with the culture that created it and which it sustained. With patterns similar to the loss of biodiversity, many languages are dwindling into extinction.

Of the approximately 7000 languages on the planet today, it is estimated that at least half will have disappeared by the end of this century. There are organizations and projects trying to record these languages for posterity.

When we lose a language, we lose a unique worldview.

More:

National Geographic article – Vanishing Languages by Russ Rymer

National Geographic article – Save a Language, Save a Culture by Tim Brookes

Endangered Languages, a project by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity

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