Something Turns, Words Catch


By Philologos

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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In last week’s column I wrote about the invention of new words in Hebrew to fill gaps in its vocabulary. But Hebrew, needless to say, is not the only language that has to keep up. Another is Yuchi, a Native-American language spoken fluently by several dozen people in northeastern Oklahoma. In need of a term for “cassette tape,” Yuchi speakers recently came up with k’ala bE thlE gOdEnA hOhu, which means, literally, “something turns, words catch.”

This bit of information comes from a chapter on Yuchi in Mark Abley’s newly published “Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages” (Houghton Mifflin). In writing this book, Abley, a Canadian journalist with a gift and love for languages, spent several years researching the nature and current state not only of Yuchi, but also of Tiwi, an aboriginal language of the north coast of Australia; Boro, most of whose speakers live along the Brahmaputra River in India; Provençal, the language of the troubadours once dominant throughout southeastern France and now used on a daily basis only by a few old people; Inuktiut, the Eskimo tongue of eastern Canada; Mohawk, the speech of one of the six peoples of the once-mighty Iroquois Confederacy, and still other imperiled languages.

Abley also discusses languages that are already extinct but are the subjects of revival efforts, such as Manx, the Celtic of the Isle of Man; languages that have pulled back from the brink of extinction and now appear to have a future, like Faroese, a descendant of the Old Norse of Vikings who “washed ashore and stayed” on the Faeroe Islands, “a bunch of hardscrabble rocks northwest of Scotland”; and languages that, though others like them are doing poorly, are themselves doing well, such as Welsh, which is thriving despite the steady erosion of its close relatives, Breton and Scots and Irish Gaelic. And there is also the case of Hebrew, discussed by Abley in several pages — the most spectacular case of language resurrection in human history.

Abley writes knowledgeably and beautifully about the estimated 90% of the roughly 6,000 languages spoken today that, in an age of globalization and monolinguistic nation-states, will definitely or probably not survive. Each is a world of its own; each is the bearer of a distinct culture and sometimes of a unique grammar, vocabulary and way of perceiving reality that will vanish with it; each has speakers who mourn its passing and grieve over their inability to transmit it to their children and grandchildren. As Abley cogently observes, we have been late in waking up to this mass destruction. Even now, there is far more concern on this planet for the fate of rare species of birds and toads than there is for Hixkaryana, a Carib language of northern Brazil that is one of the few on earth to regularly employ an object-verb-subject sentence structure, so that the sequence “the man grabbed the jaguar” means in English “the jaguar grabbed the man,” or Mati Ke, whose system of noun classification, as Abley puts it, reflects how, in the Australian bush, “human life and the rest of the natural world are bound together by a system of totems.”

If the terrible loss involved in the disappearance of a language does not need explaining to the readers of the Forward, this is because of the case of Yiddish, which is one of the thousands of the world’s languages whose future does not look bright, although it is better off than many others. Abley devotes an intelligent chapter to Yiddish that avoids the elegiac vein in which it is so often written about. At one point Harvard professor and Yiddish literature scholar Ruth Wisse is quoted as saying, “People say to me, ‘Yiddish has to be maintained at all costs.’ [Yet] even though this is my life, I don’t agree. Language is never the sum total of a people. The Jewish people has been absolutely ruthless in terms of its own languages.” Wisse means by this that many other Jewish languages precious to their speakers — Judeo-Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish and so forth — have been allowed or are being allowed to perish. Only Hebrew is so intrinsic to Jewish peoplehood that its end would mean the end of the Jews.

This may be small comfort to lovers of Yiddish, just as it may be small comfort to know that, far from being an exception among the world’s languages in its current struggle to survive, Yiddish is the rule. Indeed, Yiddish has many advantages that languages like Yuchi or Tiwi do not, such as a relatively large population of chasidim with a high birthrate who are ideologically committed to speaking it; a world-class literature that makes people want to study it; well-funded and well-run institutions that campaign to promote it, and an internationally recognized mystique of yidishkayt that inspires general interest in it. It’s enough to make a Mohawk or Mati Ke speaker wildly envious. And that in turn should make Yiddish speakers realize that theirs isn’t the only language af tsores.

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