Thursday, 18 May 2017

Linguistic diversity

matters. Saving minority languages matters.
Yes, I know the argument. "It's a waste of money to have bilingual signs in languages like Scots Gaelic and Downunder's Pitjantjatjara." 
Or is it? Malcolm Combe, a law lecturer in Scotland, wrote an opinion in the Scotsman yesterday. He wrote it in support of the bilingual signs appearing in Scotland.  He wrote it in response to someone else who objected to those signs.
I prowled in to read the article. It is a topic I am passionate about. I believe all languages are worth saving - and I also know that we won't save many of them.
Downunder has lost many of the languages spoken before "white" settlement. In all likelihood it had already lost other languages before that as rival tribal groups took over areas inhabited by others. Some of the vocabulary would have been absorbed. Words people needed to describe the world around them would have increased. Languages of such people have a rich and varied vocabulary to describe their world. They have no vocabulary to describe modern technology. That would have to be borrowed. It is for that sort of reason too many people believe that the minority language somehow doesn't matter any more.  
It does matter. Language is about identity. Language is a way of thinking. Language provides us with a tool to make sense of the world around us.  All those things matter. 
Even more important is the fact that each language provides us with a different way of thinking and it is that which helps us preserve our past, protect the present, and grow into our future. Each language adds to the rich diversity of human existence.Every time we lose a language we lose something of great value.
That doesn't mean language should remain static. Languages change over time. They have to grow or die. There are words in my present-day vocabulary that didn't exist in my world as a child - common, everyday words like "pizza" and "computer".  We didn't have pizza or computers so we didn't need them then. We do now. 
My paternal great-grandparents were bilingual. They spoke Scots Gaelic and Scots-English. I know almost no Gaelic. My siblings know none at all. I know only because language and languages fascinate me. I have never had cause to write a communication board in both Gaelic and English - although I have done one in Welsh and English.  Gaelic is classed as a minority language but it has a written literary tradition and, in recent years, people have become much more aware of the need to preserve and expand such things.
There is - or was - no such tradition for the many Downunder languages we have lost. We have lost so many of the stories told from one generation to the next, the stories which let them make their sense of the world around them. Even now, when there is an awareness of this, the money is never there for people to go out and try and preserve such things. The language of the Kaurna people, those who lived in the area around the city I now live in, is so corrupted that people who time travelled simply wouldn't understand one another at all - over the space of less than 200 years. 
So please, keep those bilingual signs in Scotland and teach Scots children to pronounce them and tell them what they mean. It matters.


Jodiebodie said...

Well said, Cat. I agree with everything you have said about language. While English is one of the world's dominant language right now (I expect Chinese to be right up there too and climbing ranks) and, for that reason, many books and other works get translated into English but it is not the same as reading or hearing the same ideas in their native language. There is something beautiful about the rhythm and sounds of other languages. It's like music - lots of different styles and genres - and I feel the same about languages. There are ideas and words in some languages that do not have a direct translation in others. The nuance of meaning gets lost when these languages get lost.

I used to study Latin. I was scoffed at; accused of wasting my time on a 'dead language' but right throughout my life, I have found it immensely useful in all sorts of ways. Whether it was being able to follow a conversation in Italian even though I have had no formal education in Italian or to work out the meaning of new English words and scientific terms, it has paid for itself right there. It helps me to remember the botanic names of plants when I am gardening, and just learning the grammatical rules and syntax of different languages teach a person that there is more than one way to achieve the same aim and helps me with my birth language - Australian English.

These are not minority languages as you have described but the minority languages are also important because they have developed word usage pertinent to their local regions, customs and cultures. For Indigenous cultures that have oral traditions, language is a crucial part of cultural identity. There has been some good news recently on at least one Indigenous Australian language that is being 'rescued' from the brink of extinction with the help of Elders who were born into that language and still have it in living memory. It is now a race against time.

When we lose languages of the world, we all lose a piece of our world.

Jodiebodie said...

...and a piece of our collective understanding of our world.

(Sorry I hit the wrong button before completing my last paragraph! Excuse me!)