Why the world needs isersarneq

In this week’s cover story, staff writer Harry Bruinius looks at the Queens borough of New York, the most linguistically diverse spot on the planet.

Jorgen Chemnitz/AP/File
People gather in Nuuk, Greenland, to celebrate their national day on June 21, 2009. In Greenlandic, words contain complex concepts that speak to native peoples’ untranslatable knowledge of their environment.

It might not seem like a terrible tragedy that no one alive looks at the vertical groove between the nose and the upper lip and thinks siniik’adach’uuch’. The last person who did, Marie Smith Jones, was also the last person who spoke Eyak, an Alaskan tribal language. She died in 2008.

A year earlier, linguists made recordings of Charlie Muldunga in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory, frantically trying to learn as much about Amurdag – one of the continent’s more than 200 Aboriginal languages – before the last person who knew how to speak it was gone.

In this week’s cover story, staff writer Harry Bruinius looks at the Queens borough of New York, the most linguistically diverse spot on the planet. As many as 800 languages are spoken there. But his story is also one of loss – of how many in Queens are linguistic refugees, some of the last people alive to speak their language. As they assimilate into America, they hasten the disappearance of their mother tongues.

Much has been written about the mass extinction of species today, but linguists point to a similar extinction of language. One of the world’s estimated 6,800 languages dies every two weeks. Some 80% of the world’s population speaks one of only 83 languages.

The forces can be malign – dominant cultures forcing others to abandon their language and culture. But they can also be a byproduct of a sourceless assimilation as the world draws closer together.

At what cost? For speakers of vanishing tongues, something intimate and dear is fading. As economic and climate pressures compel Marshall Islanders to leave their homeland, Springdale, Arkansas, has become home to the world’s second-largest collection of Marshallese speakers. “There’s definitely the sense that if you don’t speak Marshallese, you’re not really a Marshallese person,” an anthropologist tells Grist, an online magazine. “The culture couldn’t really survive without language.”

But there is a broader cost, too. One-third of the world’s languages have no written system. The loss of a language is like the loss of a library filled with one-of-a-kind books. Language is a repository of accumulated wisdom and insight – a testament to the richness of humanity.

In South America, the Kallawaya “use Spanish or Quechua in daily life, but also have a secret tongue mainly for preserving knowledge of medicinal plants, some previously unknown to science,” notes a 2007 New York Times report.

In Greenlandic, words contain complex concepts that speak to native peoples’ untranslatable knowledge of their environment. The word isersarneq, for example: “This is a wind in the fjord that comes in from the sea, and it can be hard to get home, but once you get out of the fjord, it’s nice weather.”

As a verb-based language, Algonquin speaks to a fundamentally different worldview, focusing more on actions than things. Speaking of how this changes perception, an article by the Global Oneness Project asks, “What if god were a verb, an unfolding dynamic processing?”

Queens has been called a “Noah’s Ark” for languages, where they can be studied and shared before they vanish. There is much to learn.

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