< Lexicon Valley, Episode 2

Transcript

Friday, July 29, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Early last year a woman named Boa Senior died. She was 85 years old and lived on the Andaman Islands off the coast of Myanmar in the Indian Ocean. The story of her death was covered by news outlets around the world, some of which posted a recording of Boa Senior singing an ancestral song in her native language.

[BOA SR SINGING]

I'd like to translate the lyrics for you, but I can't. They are in the Bo language, which had been the late Boa Senior's mother tongue. The Bo language died with her, and with her passing was also lost the culture, the history, the logic of the very small civilization in which it once flourished.

The question is, so what? And that is the question that former OTM producer Mike Vuolo pursues with Bob, in this second installment of their occasional series called Lexicon Valley.

MIKE VUOLO:

Monday morning flipping through the newspaper, there on page D34, an obituary for the native American language Ojibwe. How do you feel.

BOB GARFIELD:

Uh, how do I feel? I feel like — oh, Ojibwe.

Hey, you got the Sports Section? Give me the Sports Section.

MIKE VUOLO:

Oh, come on, not even that callous.

BOB GARFIELD:

[LAUGHS]  Okay. How do I feel? I feel as if I'm supposed to be sad, although when push comes to shove, I'm not sure I could exactly tell you why.

MIKE VUOLO:

Fair enough. Let me try to give you some perspective. There are somewhere between six and seven thousand languages currently being spoken on Earth. The most conservative estimates are that about half of those will be extinct in the next century.

And the most dire estimates are that 90 percent of them will be extinct and it won't even take a century.

We're not talking, of course, about English or French or Italian or Chinese or Russian, the 80 to 100 biggest languages in the world. They're spoken by about four and a half billion people.

We're talking about languages that, by and large, you've never heard of, the 3,500 or so smallest languages in the world. They're spoken by less than ten million people. Those are the languages that are gonna be going extinct.

BOB GARFIELD:

Well, one way to look at it, it seems to me, and maybe the most hard-hearted is if a language dies in the Andaman Rain Forest and nobody is alive to notice it or need it or use it, or remember it, does it matter?

MIKE VUOLO:

Well, my goal is to get you to believe that maybe it does matter. I had a conversation recently with David Harrison. He's a co‑founder of the Living Tongue Institute for Endangered Languages and he travels all over the world, talking to so-called "last speakers.

He told me that there are three kind of categories of human knowledge that we stand to lose when we lose these languages.

DAVID HARRISON:

First and foremost, it's about human history, mythology, the stories, the beliefs, the ways that people have interpreted their existence.

MIKE VUOLO:

Let's call this first category cultural knowledge. There are people all over the world who have in their native language the equivalent of say, you know, Homer's Odyssey, Beowolf maybe. And they've never been documented.

One of Harrison's linguistic areas of expertise is the native languages of Siberia. And he has spent a lot of time among a people there who speak a language called Tuvin. And on one trip an elder recited for him an 8,000-line poem from memory that Harrison told me was about a young girl whose brother dies in a hunting accident.

DAVID HARRISON:

And she sets off on a magical quest, accompanied by her talking horse, And she has to fulfill various feats of strength and win the hand of a princess who is then going to bring her dead brother back to life.

BOB GARFIELD:

Mike, I know you're gonna think I'm a philistine, but we'll lose the Tuvin Mr. Ed story. [MIKE LAUGHS]  W — h — does the earth still spin on its axis?

MIKE VUOLO:

Think of it this way:  About 200 or so of the world's languages are written. The rest, including Tuvin, are only spoken. So I think that Harrison feels this sense of urgency; if we lose these myths and creation stories, then we lose sort of pieces of the puzzle of humanity.

BOB GARFIELD:

And insight into understanding humanity itself.

MIKE VUOLO:

Exactly.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, so that takes care of culture.

MIKE VUOLO:

Second category, we'll call it scientific knowledge. I remember very distinctly in like fifth grade another kid telling me that Eskimos had a gazillion words for snow. That isn't quite true.

But it turns out, says Harrison, that the Inuit people of North America have almost a hundred words for sea ice. So who cares? What does that mean?

BOB GARFIELD:

Maybe they're just goin' with the flow. [LAUGHS]

MIKE VUOLO:

I think what Harrison would say is that having a hundred variations on the theme denotes a really sophisticated knowledge of that theme, knowledge that is not transferable to other languages.

Another example that Harrison used was from Siberia, a language called Tofa.

DAVID HARRISON:

So if you use a word like "chareh" in the Tofa language, chareh means a four-year-old male, domesticated, uncastrated, rideable reindeer. That's a concept that I can express in English, but notice that English does not give us the efficiency of a single word that means all of those things. And so, you have to view this as a kind of technology.

MIKE VUOLO:

What you know about your environment plays an important role in how you name and sort that environment. So we, here in the West, have a tradition of taxonomy that's based on the fossil record, based on our ability to retrace the branches of evolution. Other people elsewhere in the world have their own taxonomies and their own way of sorting their environment, based on what they know.

BOB GARFIELD:

Just give me an example, please.

MIKE VUOLO:

For example, there is a people in Brazil who speak a language called Kayapo. And they divide up the bees in their region into, you know, 50-some odd what we would call species.

And I just want to read to you the criteria by which they divide up these insects. Flight patterns, aggressive behavior, sound, habitat, geometry of nest structure, shape, color, markings, smell of the bee. There's some guy running around with a really swollen nose.

[BOB LAUGHS]

Quality and quantity of honey, edibility of larvae, quality of wax, and more. These people know a hellova lot about bees. And what they know isn't necessarily built into our taxonomy.

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, that covers culture and science. What's a third leg of Harrison's language preservation stool?

MIKE VUOLO:

Straight linguistics. For example, in English a typical word order for sentences is subject, verb object

BOB GARFIELD:

I climbed a tree.

BOB GARFIELD:

I climbed a tree.

MIKE VUOLO:

Yeah, subject, verb, object.

BOB GARFIELD:

I mean, I haven't climbed a tree in years.

MIKE VUOLO:

Now, there are other languages —

BOB GARFIELD:

That was just an example.

MIKE VUOLO:

Gotcha. Now, there is a word order that is the exact reverse of English —object, verb, subject that is extremely rare.

BOB GARFIELD:

Tree climbed I?

MIKE VUOLO:

A tree climbed I, exactly. Now, you might say that in English if you were being poetic or rhetorical, but it's not sort of standard English word order. But it is standard in a language called Urarina, spoken by a Native people who live in what is now Peru.

Now there are countless examples of languages that do sort of quirky things that we would never have guessed languages would do.

BOB GARFIELD:

So what? What's the benefit to humanity to find out what the rest of humanity is up to linguistically?

MIKE VUOLO:

Essentially, what you're asking me, Bob, is what is the point of knowing any information unless you can use it to some end. You know, we can shred up whole categories of academia, history, for that matter —

BOB GARFIELD:

Ooh! Snap. Okay, look —

[MIKE LAUGHS]

I'm just gonna put you down for enlightenment is good for humanity.

MIKE VUOLO:

Well, you know, now that I think about it, my motivation for caring about these dying languages might not be so pure, because, you know, when you're a kid and you're debating about which superpower you want? I always said to people that I wanted to be able to speak every language on earth, which usually met one of two reactions. Lame!  Or, that's not a real superpower.

[BOB LAUGHING]

And if in 200 years there are only two or three languages left, then it really won't be a superpower.

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, thanks Mike. Let's do this again another time.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

That was Bob with former OTM producer Mike Vuolo.