Speaking In Tongues

I have a friend who is a truly prodigious linguist. I have no natural flair for languages, while he picks them up like the morning paper. He has a knack for detecting common threads that run through different languages, similarities in grammar, vocabulary, etc. that seem to make it relatively straightforward for him to gain at least a rudimentary working knowledge of almost any language. Even more importantly, he seems to enjoy it. Years ago I gave him a dictionary that translated Norwegian into Sami (the local language spoken by the indigenous people of northern Norway) and back again. He absolutely loved it even though he could not speak either language at the time. Now he is very likely proficient in both.

Having such a love of languages he is also understandably passionate about the dwindling ones, of which there are many (See UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/atlas-of-languages-in-danger/). Here, unfortunately, our opinions differ. Certainly one of the most difficult things about travel is the fact that there are so many different languages and communication can at times be extremely challenging. Having said that, one of the most exciting and interesting things about travel is the fact that there are so many different languages and communication can at times be extremely challenging. Many of my after dinner stories contained the Florentine waitress doing chicken impersonations over the restaurant menu, or my own choo choo noises in Croatia to help me find the railway station. And how much fun was the restaurant in Costa Rica where we pointed at random items on the menu and marvelled at the fact that each dish seemed to contain some form of seafood? We found out later that it was, in fact, a seafood restaurant.

So, I will admit to a small twinge of disappointment at the thought of a language disappearing forever. But surely language was created to facilitate communication between people? If that language no longer performs that function because far more people speak English than Taushiro (a language spoken in Peru by only one person, which must make conversation exceedingly difficult), then who are we to try and stop its extinction? If the native speakers themselves have no more use for it then why keep it alive for its own sake? I am sure it was a pity when the last gong farmer (someone who dug human faeces out of cesspits for disposal) and pinsetter (someone who set the pins back up in bowling alleys after they had been knocked over) disappeared, but we no longer have need of their particular skills. Even English itself has changed radically over the years, but who wants to go back to “thee”, “thou” and “hast”?

As the world becomes increasingly more homogenised it seems inevitable that the number of actively spoken languages will decline, until we are left with a few, or possibly even just the one language. While that will certainly facilitate trade and commerce it will also make the world just a little duller and greyer. Never again will I be able to buy a Greek phrase book telling me that my “handbags are in the net” or sit in a Thai airplane informing me that there is a “live vest under the seat.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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  1. #1 by mylatinnotebook on 08/03/2013 - 1:27 am

    I have similar conflicted feelings about lost languages. Great post!

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