Ella looked outside. Through her window, the frozen lake looked eerily beautiful. She enjoyed observing the moment when the darkness of night gave in to the brightness of morning. The reddish pink glow in the eastern sky condensed. Below her window, cars went by non-stop on Lakeshore Drive. The sound of the city waking up however was blocked by her soundproof windows many floors above the ground. Usually, she appreciated the calm of the silence before the noise and clatter of the day began. However, today was different. This morning, the silence felt numbing. Ella wanted to say something to break out of it, but the absence of noise engulfed her. Just like Lake Michigan was covered in the blanket of snow, she was wrapped in the cocoon of silence.
Like Ella, many of us have felt the different effects of silence. Sometimes from being in a quiet room that allows us to clear our thoughts, and at other times feeling like a weight descended on us when we struggle to find the right words to express our emotions. Lebanese-American poet, Kahlil Gibran, once wrote “in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings, but cannot fly.” Many poets, prophets, and philosophers argue that silence allows the inner voice to shine. It is widely believed that soul-searching can only happen far away from the bustle of the human world with its echo chamber of judgements and opinions. Working in silence often affords a clarity and vividness that noise mutes.
Yet, despite all the positives of silence, there is a power in language that has gripped humans since almost the beginning of our existence. This is because language is the foundation of our cultures, the collective behavior, beliefs, and customs that human society operates on. About 70,000 years ago, organisms belonging to the species Homo Sapiens started to form elaborate structures called cultures. The culture of a group of people reflects the experiences of those people during a specific time. Hannah Arendt, widely considered one of the most influential political theorists of the 20th century, said “an experience makes its appearance only when it is said. And unless it is said it is, so to speak, non-existent.” We can only describe our lives by telling stories, and to tell these stories we need language. Tony Morison, in her spectacular Nobel Acceptance Speech, said, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measures of our lives.” Language gives significance to human lives and the stream of cultures which flow around the world. It is predominantly through language that human beings communicate with each other. It creates an enriched and complex pattern of connections among different groups of people irrespective of geographical boundaries.
Languages often undergo a cycle of birth and death. In this way, they are similar to their speakers. While there are various theories about the origin of language, there exists an even more interesting body of literature about the death of languages as well. Famous linguists such as David Crystal, Claude Hagege, and Paul Louis have comprised research on the death of a language from data collected over the course of a few decades. Paul Louis’ journal Ethnologue is a comprehensive reference work which catalogues all of the known living languages in the world today. Linguists and researchers from around the world rely on such resources to keep track of how languages are thriving.
Sadly in our current world, every two weeks a language is forgotten. Although the primary function of language is to express our thoughts and opinions, languages aren’t just a medium of communication. Languages hold a vast treasure of wisdom acquired by generations of people who speak, read, and write in that language. It holds their thoughts and reflections and ultimately their cultures. So when a language dies, with it dies an entire community. The thoughts, habits, values and emotions of the speakers of that language was lost forever. An absence of language can be thought of as synonymous to extinction.
Does that mean Ella’s thoughts and emotions will find no expression? Or will the absence of words give birth to another kind of language? I wonder! Silence has its own language. It has its own way of communication. But today we will focus on languages which have been spoken by different groups of people for generation after generation.
The rate at which languages have been dying is alarming. In 8000 BC, there were about 20,000 living languages. According to a recent issue of Ethnologue, only 7,117 of those languages are still spoken today. This number is still continuously changing, and includes many languages that are less complex or spoken by a very small number of people. Today, many existing languages are in critical situations. More than hundred languages in Papua New Guinea, Maori language, Pipil language in El Salvador are a few examples. Lipan Apache language in the United States or Totoro language of Colombia are being spoken by fewer and fewer people each day. These languages are obscure now. The Milanese language is another example of an endangered language. All these facts confirm the fear that languages, all over the world, are dying at a fast rate. Researchers predict that in the next 100 years, half of the 7,117 languages spoken will be totally lost. Considering the connection between language and cultural preservation, this poses a threat to many cultures and customs around the world.
Usually when the last speaker of a particular language dies the language itself dies with it. Written samples of a forgotten language, when they exist, allow for a mode of preservation. But oral customs require active speaking to stay alive. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the different factors that contribute both to the obscurity and success of a language. A great example of this phenomenon is Sanskrit. Despite the vast treasury of Sanskrit literature, the language is still considered to be a dead language since there are no active speakers. However, this comes with its own caveat. The small Indian village of Mattur in Karnataka is famously considered the “Sanskrit Village” of India. It is the only village where most residents still use Sanskrit as the medium of communication. However, it is important to note that Kannar and Tamil languages are also used here. The words of British Crystal offer some hope for Sanskrit, as he writes “A language lives on, after these deaths, only if it has been written down or recorded in some way.”
Some linguists believe globalization and urbanization are some of the major causes of the death of a language. Globalization wipes out the languages spoken by smaller ethnic groups. Smaller and weaker communities become consolidated and want to belong to the larger and stronger communities to survive. Thus, minorities embrace the language of the majority culture. They neglect their own language for the sole reason of survival. While it is unclear whether globalization is the cause of the death of languages or the result, there is some consensus in the linguistic community that the predominant cause of the death of a language is linguistic imperialism. Robert Phillipson has written two books on this subject: Linguistic Imperialism (1922) and Linguistic Imperialism Continued (2009). When a major language becomes too dominant, it suppresses local languages. The language of the more powerful influences education, philosophy, literature and official paperwork. As a result, the weaker communities have to accept the language of the more influential. The process is slow but steady. This aggression of language is called linguistic imperialism.
Language is an integral part of human identity, and the alarming rate of extinction that today’s languages face presents a huge loss for the great diversity of human culture. The colorful tapestry of human civilization will lose its glamor if too many ethnic groups lose their languages and their cultural heritages along with them. A language is like a river. It flows through the heart of a culture and carries with it the life force which nourishes the culture. To protect the symphony of global culture it is important to protect the diverse languages. It is high time to take some action to instill some life force in the veins of dying languages.
International Mother Language Day on 21st February is observed worldwide to promote the awareness of cultural diversity, linguistic and multilingualism. This day was recognized by the United Nations in response to martyrs from Bangladesh who are immortal for their love of their mother tongue. It is through their native language they revolted. They wrote songs, plays, stories and poems to express how they felt. They made movies in Bengali to show their attachment to the language.
While silence can be blissful, language is our life blood as a species. There are efforts around the world to keep cultures alive, and these efforts should begin to start focusing more on language. American poet Ezra Pound wrote “the sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.” To continue to grow our understanding of the world around us, we should increase our appreciation of the diversity of languages in the world and the human experiences they capture. Like Ella, we, as collective humanity, will require this to break out of cocoons of silence and find the words to express and thrive ourselves.