Monday, September 03, 2012

Dying Languages

Someone left a copy of National Geographic in the employee lounge the other day, and it had a sad and fascinating article about languages in the world. According to the article, there are 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, but half of them are expected to pass into oblivion by the end of the century.
In Papua New Guinea, only 15 speakers still use Abom. None of them are children. In the Americas, 170 languages may soon pass out of use, including Tataina in southern Alaska, where only 75 people speak the language, most of them older adults. The Native American language of the Wintu peoples, where I live in northern California, has fewer than a half-dozen speakers remaining.
In Asia, only 15 speakers of Ainu remain on the Kuril Islands. In Africa, only 8 people still speak El Mono on the shores of Lake Turkana.
In Europe, only 25 speakers of Vod remain in Russia. Vod has never had a written language, so hopes for its survival are especially dim.
So what's so bad about a language dying out? Isn't that just the natural order of things? Wouldn't we be better off with fewer languages? 
I don't think so. I think the world will be a poorer place with fewer languages. Sometimes, particular words in a language can offer meanings about nature, the world, and life that simply have no translation. Once a language is gone, a unique take on life is gone. Forever.
Particularly sad to me is the possible demise of the Cajun dialect of French in south Louisiana. When I was a new guy with my employer in the late 1970's, such a thought would have been silly. All you had to do on a busy crew change day was open your ears, and you'd hear Cajun French in conversations between oil workers waiting for their offshore flights. You could go into a bar in Lafayette and hear the bartender speaking Cajun French to a patron next to you, seemlessly changing from French to English and back again.
I don't hear Cajun French much anymore. People who live in Lafayette, the "capital of Acadiana," tell me that most children there aren't growing up bilingual as was typical thirty years ago. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana says that the number of speakers of Cajun French has fallen markedly over the last fifty years, and that body is trying to get the dialect reintroduced in south Louisana schools.
It seems many folks in Louisiana doubt that the Cajun language will even last another generation. I hope they're wrong.