Verbal Energy

A fascination with vanishing languages

In a world that seems relentlessly bent on homogenization, there's something appealing about languages that so perfectly fit the distinctive tribal cultures of their speakers.

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The new year is only a few weeks old, and yet we've already lost a language or two from the face of the earth since 2013 began.

One language vanishes every 14 days, according to National Geographic Magazine. The article from which I learned this did not appear in the absolute latest issue; I'll be coy and say that since Russ Rymer's article "Vanishing Voices" first hit the newsstands, something like 20 languages have died out.

It's not all doom and gloom. In many instances, visiting field linguists have helped capture languages on the brink, logging vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

"But saving a language is not something linguists can accomplish," Mr. Rymer writes, "because salvation must come from within." Surviving native speakers need to have pride in their language, if it is to hold its own with Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, or yes, English.

Part of the fascination of reading about these other languages, some with as few as four (yes, four) fluent speakers left, is the windows they provide on their speakers' perception of the world. It may be folklore that Eskimos have 49 or 52 or 100 words for snow. But according to National Geographic, raising sheep, yaks, and goats on the Siberian steppe has given the Tuvan people, who live in the Russian Federation on the Mongolian border, an elaborate vocabulary for livestock, with a single term, for instance, for a "white calf, less than one year."

Not to be topped, the Todzhu herders of southern Siberia have an elaborate vocabulary for their reindeer, with a special term for "a castrated former stud in its fourth year." Former stud? Ouch!

Sometimes it's the vocabulary that's missing that's remarkable. How can it be, as the Geographic reports, that the Pirahã people of the Amazon get along with apparently no words for specific numbers at all, but make do instead with concepts of "few" or "many"? I suppose that spares them the experience of seeing their stock markets go berserk when unemployment numbers rise or fall by an unanticipated tenth of a percentage point.

Speaking of unemployment, how do the Aka people of northeastern India get along without a word for "job," in the sense of salaried labor? By a radical self-sufficiency. Aka villagers grow their own crops, raise and slaughter their own livestock, and build their own houses, largely separate from the rest of the world. In fact, they seem not to have a separate word for "world," either.

In a world that seems relentlessly bent on homogenization, there's something appealing about these languages that so perfectly fit with the distinctive tribal cultures of their speakers.

Where were you born? Where are you from? Where do you live? Where have you spent most of your life? For many of us, each of those questions has a different answer. The Seris in Mexico, though, no more than 1,000 strong, have another way of asking that question. Their forebears fought off an evangelizing priest in 1773, and they have remained outside mainstream Mexican culture. The question the Seris ask: "Where is your placenta buried?" The magazine explains, "Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks."

It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of being "grounded," doesn't it?

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