• Why Save Languages?
  • Why Save Languages?

LANGUAGE IS THE LIFE BLOOD OF CULTURE

With every language lost, we lose a people's unique viewpoint on the world.


LANGUAGE AS THOUGHT


Language is the keystone of that recognition and commonality. Each language expresses a mindset that is, in the end, unique to the community that speaks it.
"The loss of languages is tragic precisely because they are not interchangeable, precisely because they represent the distillation of the thoughts and communication of a people."

- Marian Mithun,
Linguist, University of California,
Santa Barbara

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WHY SAVE A LANGUAGE?

  • worldpolicy-bobNovelist Russell Hoban once commented in an interview that:

    “Language is an archaeological vehicle, full of the remnants of dead and living pasts...
    The language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history.”

    With the loss of a language goes the loss of history, and more. Jorge Luis Borges describes that absence poetically:
     

    "You will never recapture what the Persian
    Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
    When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
    You wish to give words to unforgettable things."

    All languages have their own traits, and so in turn does their loss. According to several scholars, the loss of Lakota would mean the loss of a certain way of looking at the world.

    What Can You Do to Help
  • past native americanBut how much can a language shape the worldview and identity of its speakers? Linguists have spent a century attempting to understand how much language conditions enable or restrict thinking.  As Guy Deutscher discusses in Through the Language Glass, early claims were expansive:

    "Benjamin Whorf and his followers decided that American Indian languages lead their speakers to an entirely different conception of reality than that of people who speak European languages – but Whorf’s glaring lack of evidence has not stood the test of time."

    We do not yet have a full understanding of the connection between language and culture at the neurological level. However, Deutscher and other recent scholars have managed to make a good case that language can change a person’s view of reality based not on what a person says but how a person says it.

    For example, English requires us to include a very specific sense of time in our speech. For instance, you can’t talk about yourself walking to the store without implying whether you are doing it now, did it yesterday, or will do it tomorrow. Time is built into the fabric of the language.


    Many Native American languages do not require or even enable that kind of temporal thinking.  Among the Sioux, there is no formal past tense. The speaker must indicate that an action or event took place in the past by telling when specifically the action or event took place. In addition, the future tense is fundamentally different than that of English. Where the future tense in English indicates the intention to perform an action or that an event will take place, the future tense used by the Sioux indicates only the potential for actions and events. This difference between the two languages both inform and express each group's view of reality.  

    What Can You Do to Help
  • storyteller-all
    Instead of space, the Lakota language involves a different relation to place than English. This is an example of how every culture has a collection of knowledge. What historian Keith Basso describes for the Apache culture is also true for Lakotas:


    "Wisdom sits in places. There are many different ways to store the wisdom of a group; European cultures use the written language for storage."

    But for centuries the Lakota culture had no written language. For the Lakota, places became the repositories of stories with moral meaning those stories were regarded as creating wisdom in a person.

    Whenever such a place is mentioned, it recalls the story and the wisdom associated with it. Keith Basso describes such a place-name:


    "You might call a bend in the river, The Bend Where the Coyote Pissed on the Rock –which reminds the listener of the story about people who unwisely didn’t look around before they drank riverwater, didn’t see the rock with the piss on it, and got sick. A person in the tribe must know those stories in order to be wise."



    Many of the Lakota stories are still not written down, and according to Lakota elders, the stories lose their power and meaning when translated. According to linguist and TLC advisor, the same is true for songs, riddles, jokes, lullabies, and more. Without the language, the meaning of the Lakota places, and the wisdom that sits within those places, will be lost. The way of thinking that sees those places in exactly that way will be lost as well.

    What Can You Do to Help
  • laknestLanguages form the keystone of an individual’s identity. When a person’s ancestral language is taken away or lost, a person often feels lost- without a clear identity and often feeling insecure about who they are. Languages provide true clarity for a person’s identity. It provides an undeniable part of who they are- connecting them to the larger group in beneficial and supportive way.

    Young people who are able to speak their ancestral language feel intimately connected to their group, cared for and nurtured. Their identities as part of the group are not split. These healthy identities help them become healthy members of communities and thus help support healthy communities.

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