Thursday, 22 December 2011

when words are lost, we all suffer

In Overland Issue 205 There's an article titled 'Language and politics in Indigenous writing'. It's a report on a PEN panel, originally presented at the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival.

In the first of three follow-up essays, John Bradley talks about his work with the Yanyuwa people of the south-west Gulf of Carpentaria.

He writes:
The more, however, I think about this language, the hardest thing to write about or explain is how the language seems to belong in the land and sea: it is as if it rises up out of the Yanyuwa country.
Today, only the old people speak Yanyuwa. A lot of other people can understand it, but they can't speak it, which is something the old people continue to worry about.
Further on:
When the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove 222 years ago, there were 250 separate languages spoken on the continent later known as Australia. There were therefore 250 cultures, nations, each with their way of understanding the place they called home. In addition, there were at least 600 dialects of these languages. Whichever way these numbers are viewed they speak of diversity. In 2011, less than one hundred of these languages are spoken, some by only one or two people; of this one hundred, 15 are considered strong: that is, all generations of the language community are speaking the language.
He says it has been suggested by some linguists that by 2050 perhaps only a few indigenous languages will be spoken.

All of the above writing makes similar points to what I heard recently at the talk at Preshil.

It seems that the message is getting out to the average Australian (me, for example) that we should be concerned at this potential language loss.

Bradley added something I hadn't thought about, that there is other knowledge disappearing with the languages, knowledge that might be important in my own life, as well as that of the native speakers of these tongues.
Thus we are confronted by an epidemic of silencing that will result in language and cultural loss, an epidemic that has in part been produced by thinking that everything we need to know can be said in English. Yet only now, as these languages fall silent, have biological and ecological scientists begun to see how much of the knowledge that lives in these languages and cultures is also of value to them: fine-grained details of species and micro-environments have been named and worked with for millennia by Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. In the words of the Malawian-born author Amadou HampatĂ© Bâ from 1966: ‘An old person dying is a library burning.’
A friend of mine, who emigrated from Argentina, once told me his grandfather had been the repository of a wealth of information about Argentinian plants and herbs, and that information had died with him.

I wonder what sort of world we are headed for, where languages die and knowledge is devalued and lost to the human race.

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