Lexicon Valley, Episode 2

Friday, July 29, 2011


Back by popular demand, here's another installment of Mike Vuolo's "Lexicon Valley." In February 2010, the last living speaker of Boa died, and with her, the logic, culture, and history of the ancient people. Mike and Bob discuss the death of languages and why their passing matters.

Comments [18]

Dynasty Winters

If you don't put a practice to use, you will soon learn how to do it, or simply lose interest. Speaking a language is the same, if I learn how to speak Spanish and never use it, I will forget how to speak it. It is important to value language, because some people cannot even speak at all. Nevertheless, I think that Bob not accepting the language as something of importance, is ignorant.

Aug. 05 2011 08:09 AM
Mike White from Westland, MI

Bob, I'm sure you're playing the devil's advocate during these pieces but I'd suggest you tone it down a bit. You come across as a complete smarmy a**hole and not cute at all.

Aug. 04 2011 01:20 PM
adolphus from Southeast Raleigh

I also believe that if many people do not speak a certain language all the time, over a certain period of time the language will eventually be deceased.

Aug. 04 2011 08:48 AM
Jquan Freeman from Southeast Raleigh

I believe that if the language is not spoken by the majority, it becomes dead. The guy said what you know about your environment plays an important role in how you name and sort that environment. I agree that it is important also.

Aug. 04 2011 08:37 AM
Ron Walters from Minneapolis

Any chance you could post a link to the obituary for Ojibwe mentioned by Mike Vuolo at the top of the episode?

Aug. 03 2011 12:30 PM
Steve C from Venice, CA

Best part of the whole show. Smart, funny, informative and fascinating. Keep up the good work, guys.

Aug. 02 2011 11:35 AM

probably not the same story but there is this one

and also some other books of Tuvan folktales at www.tuvatrader.com

Aug. 02 2011 12:02 AM
Don Carter from Seattle, WA

It is a sorry state that Bob can’t see the value of a language. He reflected an attitude so common in our “educated” society. Chauvinism is chauvinism whether against females, political organizations, religions, or non-literate languages. Not being open to the opportunity to learn about ourselves as a species only shows a pride in ignorance and generates prejudice in the long run.

Aug. 01 2011 06:46 PM
Beth (Homo sapiens) from San Diego, CA

I would love to read (or hear) a translation of the Tuvan myth featuring the young girl on a hero's quest, too. What a great piece of evidence to support the argument that language death is detrimental to humanity. How often to we hear tales of a hero's quest featuring a young girl who has to win the hand of a princess? It is cross-cultural knowledge like this that gives us the opportunity to bear witness to the great diversity of human potential and challenge the presumption that Western cultural constructions are somehow natural or universal. The loss of this knowledge is not only tragic for the cultures that die but for all humanity.

Jul. 31 2011 09:28 PM
Jeff Braun from Seattle

Just to let you know, there was/is a super-hero with the ability to understand all languages.

His name is Doug Ramsey a.k.a CYPHER, a member of the New Mutant's (a branch of the X-Men from Marvel comics), and has the ability to instantly speak any language with the most minimal exposure.

When he was originally introduced back in the early 1980s, his powers centered on language as would be commonly defined by most people.

"Doug's inborn mutant power was the ability to intuitively understand and translate any form of communication, be it written, spoken or non-verbal, and regardless of whether the origin of the language was human, computer or even completely alien. His power was not related to his intellect, but allowed him to make leaps of comprehension that he could probably not explain to anyone else, but which were invariably accurate. He was able to translate the language of a long dead species, without any common terms of reference, within a matter of hours." ( See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypher_(comics) )

In more recent years his power has expanded to include the ability to read "body language", the language of any form of study (mathematics, physics, engineering, et cetera), as well as the language of, well, everything (DNA encoding, the design of the Universe, and...well, if you can understand the nature of all reality what else is there to say).

Anyway, thought I would share. Cypher is a hero (in fact the first run of the character he ended up taking a bullet and dying to save a teammate), and I don't know if there is a villain counterpart. Perhaps a villain version might run around stealing dictionaries, and encouraging slang with the youth. You know, someone you might seek to tear down any and all modern day Towers of Babel.

Jul. 31 2011 06:11 PM
JulieMN from Minnesota

Is there any chance that someone recorded the Siberian "tuvan" epic poem about the young woman and her mythic adventure? As a member of the equine tribe, I'd gladly spend a cold winter's night listening to that tale spun out over a fire!

Jul. 31 2011 05:53 PM
kirby from midwest - MN

the ability to understand the speech of everyone else in the world would be nice but I would demand the ability to turn it off. as a native English speaker I don't want to hear most of what others have to say in English. the importance of other languages and their life and death is really over rated. To be able to say four year old rideable beast is of no value in a motor vehicle dependent world. the science argument is likewise pointless. so what 100 varieties of sea ice. the value in the real world would be to know that certain concepts exist but their words are not necessary.

Jul. 31 2011 05:17 PM
Paul Klawinski from Liberty, MO

Mufwene (2004) defines language death as follows: "Likewise, language death is a protracted change of state. Used to describe
community-level loss of competence in a language, it denotes a process that does
not affect all speakers at the same time nor to the same extent. Under one conception
of the process, it concerns the statistical assessment of the maintenance versus loss
of competence in a language variety among its speakers. Total death is declared
when no speakers are left of a particular language variety in a population that had
used it."

By this definition, language death occurs long before the last speaker of a language dies. And I think it is a shame that we are losing this diversity. In the same way that I appreciate the diverse landscapes composed of thousands of interacting species, I appreciate the diverse indigenous knowledge landscape that is lost when languages go extinct. Which would you rather have, a corn field or a primary forest. We are creating a linguistic cornfield.

Jul. 31 2011 05:11 PM
Indiaman from India

This week's language talk is excellent, very philosophical! May I suggest the tool, Mike, very ancient language sanskrit in your pursuit. Before you ask me, I do not understand as much as I want to, though. Recently I was told that Adi Sankara's Vivekachudamani is the one to understand oneself before we pursue other....!

Pl. keep it up this is very good segment.

Jul. 31 2011 04:40 PM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

I look at linguistic diversity much the same as scientists look at genetic diversity -- it's a good thing in its own right but often doesn't seem that way. One day a concept from a foreign language could come in very useful. One of the foreseeable uses is in interpreting archeology but there are others that may not be foreseeable.

Being silly:
What's better than being able to speak every human language in the world? Being able to speak every language in the world (i.e. understand plants and animals as well)?
I could go on about other powers that I've dreamed of but I feel a bit silly confessing those on a serious news site.

Jul. 31 2011 10:42 AM
Fred Leonard

If a language does not have a thriving community of users it is already dead. One old person who remembers who to speak it but probably mostly speaks something else doesn't count. And that person is not going to be able to share all the myths and folklore in any case.

On the list of things I should care about, this is way down the list.

One super power and you'd pick speaking every language? That is lame compared to ...
X-ray vision (a biggie for pre-adolescent boys)
Shape shifting
Ability to pass through solid objects
Mind control; mind reading

Jul. 31 2011 07:13 AM
Jodi Smith from Oregon

Me too! There are more out there who would like to be able to speak and understand all the languages. Soooo not lame!

Jul. 31 2011 12:06 AM
John Metcalf from Mid-Michigan

I always wanted that superpower, too!

Glad I'm not the only one out there.

Jul. 30 2011 09:22 AM

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