I’m fascinated by languages. Speaking them, learning them, finding the right words to describe a situation. However, many of the worlds 7,000 languages are endangered: Fewer native speakers remain, and among younger generations those tribal languages compete with English, Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish that blare from TV sets and seep out of offices. The odds are stacked against the smaller languages. While there are 845 native Mandarin speakers alone, the world’s 3,500 smallest languages share only 8.25 million speakers among them, reports National Geographic.
Does it matter to us if one language’s river of words becomes a drizzle and eventually dries up? National Geographic writer Russ Rymer answers such:
If Aka (a language spoken in the northeasternmost corner of India), or any language, is supplanted by a new one that’s bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. “Aka is our identity,” a villager told me one day… “Without it, we are the general public.”
But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for world. Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of a mucrow (a wise elder) – a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and the strong that they would be lost without.
We stand to loose a deeply ingrained knowledge about our surroundings – about food, seasons, navigation, the interaction with nature, he writes. For example, one tribe has a whole range of highly specific terms for livestock – say, a term to describe a one year old white calf. Our vocabulary seems poor by comparison. Lynn Johnson adds beautiful photographs that I highly recommend.
Think of how the way we talk about our world shapes the way we perceive it. There are words that don’t translate to another language. In German, there is “Gemütlichkeit”, “Heimat”, but also “Schadenfreude”. In English, I can’t think of a German equivalent for “convenience” – anyone who’s ever gone shopping in Germany will agree with me.
As a journalist, it probably goes without saying that I’m enamoured with language. But it’s not just fitting turns of phrases. Learning another language lets you discovery another world, which is a wonderful experience that I’m incredibly grateful for.