Of all the gifts of life, language is one of the most incredible. I can, in silence, understand what I think you wish me to know when you write to me. And I can perceive what I think your thoughts are and ask for clarification when you speak to me. You speak and you write, and you allow me to share a tiny part of you.
Through language, we can create, examine, and test concepts, those intangible figments of human thought and imagination, those playful flights of fantasy. Concepts can only be qualified, not quantified, only interpreted, not measured. And concepts can be re-qualified and re-interpreted hundreds, even thousands of years after they were first conceived when preserved in writing—a track, like a footprint, we leave on some durable surface. Language thus guides thought, perception, sharing, and our sense of reality by archiving knowledge.
Knowledge, in turn, is the storehouse of ideas, and language is the storehouse of knowledge. Language allows each succeeding generation to benefit from the knowledge accrued by generations already passed. It is a tool, a catalyst, a gift from adults to children. By means of language, each generation begins farther up the ladder of knowledge than the preceding one.
One of the greatest values of knowledge is that it allows us to search for truth—be it in gardening or in a courtroom, while language allows us to share our knowledge as we strive to attain those ideals that we, as a society, perceive to be right and just. In this sense, language has become an imperative for the survival of human society, not only because the tenets of society are founded on language but also because our understanding of the interconnectedness of everything in Nature, as well as our place in the scheme of things, is founded on the same language. We simply must understand one another if our respective societies are to survive.
Every human language—the master tool representing its own culture—has its unique construct, which determines both its limitations and its possibilities in expressing myth, emotion, ideas, and logic. As such, language is the medium with which the condition of the human soul is painted.
The artist, using words to convey the colors of meaning by mixing them on a palette of syntax, composes the broad shapes of a cultural storyline. Then, by matching the colors of words to give expression to ideas, the artist adds verbal structure, texture, shades of meaning, and hue to the story. In doing so, the verbal artist paints a picture or portrait as fine as any accomplished with brush, paint, palette, and canvas; with camera film; or musical instruments and mute notes on paper. In addition, a verbal picture often outlasts the ravages of time that claim those of paint on canvas, imprints of light on photographic paper, or musical instruments that give “voice” to mute shapes.
As long as we have the maximum diversity of languages as media with which cultural artists can paint verbal pictures, we can see ourselves—the collective human creature, the social animal—most clearly and from many points of view in a multitude of social mirrors. And who knows when an idiom of an obscure language, a “primitive” cultural solution, or the serendipitous flash of recognition spurred by some ancient myth or modern metaphor may be the precise view necessary to resolve some crisis in our “modern” global society.
A case in point is the mystery of the way Mayan farmers fed their huge population in the tropical forest of the Yucatán peninsula. Rather than cutting down the forest and practicing the destructive slash-and-burn agriculture of today, they forged a reciprocal relationship with the tropical rainforests based on ecological acumen and cultural harmony long before the Spanish conquistadors set foot in the “New World.”
The Mayans practiced sustainable agriculture for centuries by constructing pet kotoob (plural of pet kot, Mayan for “round wall of stone”). A pet kot is a rock wall two to three feet high that encloses a small area about the size of a backyard garden. Within each pet kot, the Mayans grew agricultural plants not indigenous to their region.
The concept of a pet kot offers today’s farmers in the Yucatán peninsula a form of sustainable, tropical agriculture and forest caretaking, should they choose to use it, but only because the “tool,” the idea—pet kot—is still alive. What if the words pet kot had been lost to antiquity, and with them the idea had become extinct?
The relative independence with which cultures evolve creates their uniqueness not only within themselves but also within the reciprocity they experience with their environments, such as that of the aforementioned Mayan culture of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Each culture and each community within that culture affects its environment in its own peculiar way and is accordingly affected by the environment in a particular way. So it is that distinct cultures in their living create in the collective a varied, culturalized landscape, which in some measure is reflected in the myths they hold and the languages they speak.
For us and our children and our children’s children to continue protecting the historical context of our cultural evolution, we need to protect one aspect of our culture that we normally neglect: language. Perhaps one of the greatest feats of humanity is the evolution of language, especially written language, which not only made culture possible but also archives and shares its history through stories.
Language is not something we generally think of as becoming extinct. Yet languages are disappearing all over the world, especially the spoken-only languages of indigenous peoples. “While there were an estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world in 2007, one of them dies out about every two weeks, according to linguistic experts struggling to save at least some of them.”1 By some estimates, as many as half of the extent-spoken languages have no written counterpart.2
“When we lose a language, we lose centuries of human thinking about time, seasons, sea creatures, reindeer, edible flowers, mathematics, landscapes, myths, music, the unknown and the everyday,” says K. David Harrison, associate director of the Living Tongues Institute based in Salem,Oregon.3
What, I wonder, would it be like if I was the last person in the world to speak a language, one that would become extinct with my death because it was never written down. With my passing, the history, the mythology, the verbal artistry of an entire people would reenter the cosmic archive of silence from which the language came. If you were the last vessel of your heritage, how would you feel to be the sole and final keeper of your people’s language?
As languages disappear, so too do the cultural variations of the landscape they allowed, even fostered, because a unique culture cannot exist without the uniqueness of its language to protect its history and guide its evolution.
While it probably took thousands of years for the different human languages to evolve, it can take less than a century for some of them to disappear. What is lost when a language disappears—becomes extinct, as it were? How many potential answers, how much ancient wisdom, will be lost because we are losing languages, especially obscure, “primitive,” or indigenous ones, to “progress?” What would it feel like to be the last human to speak—and thus understand—your native language? What would it feel like to be the sole witness to the death of your culture, as it is relegated to the scrapheap of human refuse in the name of social progress?
As languages become extinct, we lose their cultural knowledge along with their perceptions and modes of expression. Because language is the fabric of culture, when a language dies, the demise of the culture that gave birth to it is imminent.
With the loss of each language, we also lose the evolution of its logic and its cultural myths and rituals—those metaphors of Creation that gave a people a sense of place within the greater context of the Universe, because language represents unity within and through time. Temporal unity is the language of memory, those images of experience stored in the human psyche and passed forward from generation to generation in the form of stories, myths, and rituals. Therefore, each time we allow a human language to become extinct, we are losing a facet of understanding, a facet of ourselves—the collective memory of a people archived in their language, a memory that is part of the human hologram. As a global society, we are slowly making ourselves blind not only to ourselves and to one another but also to our relationships within and to the Universe.
Language, which we seem to take for granted, is not something we generally think of as becoming extinct. And yet languages are in fact disappearing all over the world, especially those of indigenous peoples who have only spoken languages. As languages disappear, so do the cultural variations of the landscape they allowed, even fostered, because a unique culture cannot exist without its own language to protect its history and guide its social evolution.
I have thought much about the loss of languages as I have traveled and worked abroad over the years. And it seems to me, that languages are in many ways the reflective surface of the human psyche; therefore, to lose a language is to fracture the mirror and thus progressively distort the image of humanity as pieces of the broken mirror fall into oblivion. What a tragic loss of such a great gift.
Our growing blindness through the extinction of languages is exacerbated by the global spread of such languages as English, which limits the imagination and understanding within the rigid confines of its own fence of intellectual logic. The logic of which each language is born and of which it is caretaker can be likened to a one-way window through which a person can see the world without from his or her own point of view but cannot see themselves within the cage of their own thoughts. Thus it is that the hologram of the human family requires people representing many systems of logic all peering at one another simultaneously in order to see the wholeness of the creature we have dubbed Homo sapiens.
In this sense, a few dominant languages are replacing relatively obscure ones at a tremendous cost of lost cultural identity, history, myths, and human dignity. And to lose one’s cultural myths, which only one’s own language can adequately portray, is to lose one’s sense of place and identity in the human family and in the Universe—one’s temporal unity with every human thought ever formed, every question ever asked, every imagining unveiled, and every spiritual impulse born in that sacred land of the psyche we variously call “innocence” or “ignorance.”
I say this because each language in its own way reflects the myths and stories by which a people have learned how to cope with life. As we lose languages, we simplify the instructional reflection of humanity’s cultural myths and so destabilize human society as a whole. We are, in the name of modernity, destroying humanity’s collective spiritual vitality by relegating to the scrapheap of “useless, obsolete” information so many of its cultural myths, the rituals that express their essence, the archived lessons they teach about living a humane life, and the transcendent ideas upon which the myths, rituals, and lessons are founded.
Sadly, 92-year-old Bobby Hogg died during the last week of September 2012, “taking with him a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.” Bobby’s death is particularly noteworthy because he was the last person fluent in the Cromarty dialect once common to the seaside town of Cromarty, a remote fishing town on the tip of Scotland’s Black Isle, 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of Edinburgh.4
“I think that’s a terrible thing,” said Robert Millar, a linguist at the University of Aberdeen in northern Scotland. “The more diversity in terms of nature we have, the healthier we are. It’s the same with language.”
The demise of an obscure dialect spoken by a few hundred people may not register for most English speakers — “We’ll all live,” Millar said — but it’s part of a relentless trend toward standardization which has driven many regional dialects and local languages into oblivion. Linguists often debate how to define and differentiate the world’s many dialects, but most agree that urbanization, compulsory education and mass media have conspired to iron out many of the kinks that make rural speech unique.
Cromarty, which counts just over 700 people, is at the very end of a sparsely populated peninsula of forest and farmland. It’s separated from Inverness, the closest city, by the Beauly Firth, a wide body of cold water where salmon run and dolphins frolic.
The Cromarty dialect included a helping of archaic “thees” and “thous” as well as a wealth of seafaring vocabulary, including three sets of words for “second fishing line.”
The aspirate “h” was often added or subtracted, so that “house” would be pronounced “oos” and “apple” would be pronounced “haypel.” The “wh” sound was often dropped entirely.
A lexicon of Cromarty words, relying in large part on Hogg’s speech, gave “Oo thee keepan?” as Cromarty’s version of “How are you?” and “Hiv thoo a roosky sazpence i thi pooch?” for “Can you lend me some money?”
Urban dialects may be strong — Millar referred to “Toonserspik,” the “town speech” of cities like Aberdeen — but he said they don’t replace what’s being lost.
He said urban dialects tend to be more similar to one another than their rural counterparts, with an emphasis on differences in pronunciation over differences in vocabulary. And even rival cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh “sound more like each other than they used to.”
Author Mark Abley, who has written about the dynamism of the English language, agrees.
“I don’t believe there’s a straightforward balancing act in which urban dialects grow as rural ones shrink,” he said in an email. “Cities are always melting pots, and isolation for any group is very hard to maintain.”
As the worlds’ melting pots grow ever bigger — half the Earth’s population now lives in cities — lesser-known dialects are evaporating. Worldwide, languages are disappearing regularly, with half of the globe’s 6,000-plus languages expected to be extinct by the end of the century, according to UNESCO.
The British Isles saw two languages go extinct within living memory, UNESCO says. The last native speaker of Alderney French, a Norman dialect spoken in the Channel Islands, died around 1960, and the last speaker of traditional Manx, the language once spoken on the Isle of Man, died in 1974.
Donna Heddle, the director of the Center for Nordic Studies at Scotland’s University of the Highlands and Islands, said the loss of each language or regional dialect leaves the world poorer than it was before.
“It’s one less little sparkle in the firmament,” she said. “One little star might go out and you might never notice it, but it’s not there anymore.”5
Bobby Hogg, with respect, I dedicate this humble linguistic portrait to you.
1. Randolph E. Schmid. Hundreds of Languages Are Dying Out. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. September 19, 2007.
4. Raphael Satter. (October 3, 2012) Scottish Man Dies, Taking Town’s Dialect With Him. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/fisherman-dies-taking-scottish-dialect-him
Photograph of Bobby Hogg © by Am Baile-High Life Highland/AP 2012. Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.