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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 10:39 GMT
In defence of 'lost' languages
By Duncan Walker
BBC News

Mark Abley
Mark Abley has spent 10 years researching disappearing languages

Of the 6,000-odd languages in the world, one is said to disappear every fortnight. Should the English-speaking world care?

Somewhere on the remote Timor Sea coast of north Australia lives Patrick Nudjulu, one of three remaining speakers of Mati Ke.

It is problem enough that one of the other speakers doesn't live nearby and speaks a slightly different dialect. But the 60-year-old Aborigine also has to cope with the fact the other speaker is his sister - who traditional culture has forbidden him from speaking to since puberty.

Patrick's language then, is almost certainly going to die out. It's not the only one.

The problem is repeated to various degrees in practically every country, with dialects vanishing under the weight of major languages like English, says the writer Mark Abley.


It was 10 years ago that Mr Abley's interest in these disappearing dialects was sparked by an elderly woman in Quebec, Canada, trying to teach Abenaki to other members of her native American community.

Coghal - big lump of dead flesh after a wound is opened (Manx)
Tkhetsikhe'tenhawihtennihs - I am bringing sugar to somebody (Mohawk - Canada and USA)
Puijilittatuq - he does not know which way to turn because of the many seals he has seen come to the ice surface (Inuktitut - Canadian Arctic)
Tl'imshya'isita'itlma - He invites people to a feast (Nootka - Canada)

"I thought it was poignant and pathetic," says Mr Abley. "But I later realised it was also very interesting that she had the passion to do everything she could to revive her language."

Movies, computer games, music and TV shows do not get made in minority languages and so the dialects start to become the preserve of the old, says the author of Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.

"One of the main things that's happening is that young people all over the world are being exposed to 21st Century culture, which is very often arriving in the form of English," he says.

Parrot talk

That languages occasionally disappear is nothing new.

Some 200 years ago the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt stumbled upon the village of Maypures, near the Orinoco river, in what's now Venezuela.

Onsra - to love for the last time (Boro - NE India and Bangladesh)
Sjonvarp - television (Faroese - a language in good health)
Nartutaka - small plum-like fruit for which there is no English word (Wangkajunga, central Australia)
Th'alatel - a device for the heart (Halkomelem, Canada)

While there he heard a parrot speaking and asked the villagers what it was saying. None knew since the parrot spoke Atures and was its last native speaker.

But such changes - whether they are caused by war, famine, marriage or mass media - should not mean the loss of dialects is acceptable, says Mr Abley.

English and other major languages, while often acting as a democratising force, do not always reflect the breadth of meaning in the language they supersede.

The Inuit language of Inuktitut, for example, has many verbs for the word "know", ranging from "utsimavaa" - meaning he or she knows from experience to "nalunaiqpaa" - he or she is no longer unaware of something.

"The point is that it's not just picturesque details that are lost if a language dies out, it's also a whole way of understanding human experience."

Welsh porn

Most attempts to revive threatened languages flounder, but they can succeed - particularly if they become a part of popular culture.

Super Furry Animals
The Super Furry Animals are among bands to sing in Welsh

Think Lisa Simpson and her recent flag-waving on behalf of Cornish and the teaching of Manx in Isle of Man schools.

But it is Welsh that stands out as a "great example", with popular TV soap operas made in the language and bands like Super Furry Animals and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci recording in it.

There's even been a pornographic novel written entirely in Welsh.

"That's all for the good because it means the language is flourishing," says Mr Abley.


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