Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Endangered Languages, Dying Wor(l)ds

I was browsing the New York Times online this evening and stumbled across an article I found interesting, which for once intersects in very specific ways with my own interests.

In "Languages Die but Not Their Last Words", journalist John Noble Wiliford talks about the endangered languages in the world today, noting that an endangered language falls out of use approximately every two weeks. An excerpt:
Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.

New research, reported yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
It's a bit disconcerting to see the language in which so much of the article is couched. I'm much more used to "endangered species" than "endangered languages." However, there's something about the urgency in the article that touched me:
In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore, said that more than half the languages had no written form and were “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” Their loss leaves no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.
It seems like a part of what's at stake in the article isn't simply the languages that are threatened; rather, there's a very specific, human cost in their loss. I'm inclined to think that there's a degree to which this shares some focus with other recent posts and comment threads here. The idea of a "deep past" that precedes written history is transformed in this article about languages, leaving open the possibility that there is, increasingly, access to entire histories and peoples lost with the passing of the spoken languages that preserved them.

In a talk with friend (and sometime commenter on this blog) LJS this afternoon over coffee, the subject turned to translation. I've been studying, and attempting to produce, literary translations of Old English poetry over the past year -- a side-effect of participating in two translation workshops, as well as the presence of the new Center for Literary Translation here. I've come to explain my difficulties with literary translation as a problem with poetics: I can be a very good writer, but only of a specific genre (literary criticism). I will, in short, never be a poet.

LJS's response was interesting. He discounted genre as a factor -- rather, he explained my problems with translation as a function of loving language. More precisely, a function of loving Old English more than I'll ever be able to love modern English. I'd never really thought the problem through in those terms, but it makes some sense. I nearly always go for the too-close-to-the-original in my translations. I think it's because I'm worried what my inability to be truly faithful to the original language I'll lose something vital. Or worse yet -- something still living in the dead language.

The end of the article suggests that a large part of the loss of these languages is due to languages that, like modern English, have acheived global use:
Another measure of the threat to many relatively unknown languages, Dr. Harrison said, is that 83 languages with “global” influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants.
I spend a lot of time with dead languages. In fact, I probably spend too much time with them, given that I prefer to think of them as languages not currently in use. Thinking about my difficulty with translation and Old English, I can't help but wonder if my ambivalence with translation of late is a part of the larger problem: I don't know if the necessity of translation helps or hurts these dying languages, particularly when there is no way to keep them from being pushed out of linguistic currency by the 83 global languages.

In some sense, I think I'm feeling the sadness of losing access to the worlds these languages point to -- the histories that will never be told, the stories that won't be passed down. The worlds that will be left behind, forgotten, because the voices that could speak them fell silent. Preserving the languages is important, and these linguists are performing a service to future study, but how much can they really preserve?

I can't help wondering -- with no hope of even a (silent) fossilized remnant to be interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) afterwards, what happens to stories that aren't passed down? And when these languages die what happens to the worlds and peoples they -- however partially and fragmentedly -- represent?

File that under questions I'm not sure how to even begin answering.

Cross posted at Old English in New York

11 comments:

IndieFaith said...

My friends are currently in preparation to return to Cameroon after the new year. While in North American they are at work writing a grammar for an indigenous language called 'Lus'(wouldn't it be great to say that you have written a grammar for a language [although maybe some of you have :)]). This is for the purpose (as you may have guessed) of ultimately translating the Bible into their language. However, part of the process is enabling the people to have a medium to write what has been an oral tradition. While some have been critical of this sort of 'western' influence Lamin Sanneh from Yale has written extensively on how this process is able to stem the tide of assimilation through the community's new tool of preservation.
Whatever your view of such a project I can think of view other movements that can drum up the amount of people with the right expertise to be involved in an essentially voluntary project (they raise their own monetary support).
This would certainly be one response to the situation.
By the way, again, I am constantly delighted at the range of topics raised here in space that could be so obscure and specialized.

dan remein said...

This is a very moving post. Really.

I have been working on and revising a few OE translations ever since I finished my undergrad--as both a budding Ango-Saxonist and a poet (currently finishing my MFA). I am hoping to get some of this work into my Ms. for the degree, but...

I cannot finish the translations in much the same way once cannot complete a sucessful work of mourning. If I put one down, if I leave "giedd" as song or riddle or some circumlocution opr whatever (what example here will possibly do justice...), if I settle on one interpretation of the purepose of the genetive in "Deor," I am always left haunted by something living that cannot be, refuses to be, put to rest. It teases out the translations and pulls them forward, its a way of mourning that is strangely also a way of introduction (for the speaker of the transalted-into lang.).

J J Cohen said...

Beautiful post.

I suspect the answer to your question

what happens to stories that aren't passed down? And when these languages die what happens to the worlds and peoples they -- however partially and fragmentedly -- represent?

is simply, silence. We can hope that a trace of that which has otherwise been obliterated has slipped into some other language, some living one. We can hope that some decipherable text will be bequeathed, just as we read Hittite in the absence of native speakers. But in the cold calculus of survival, languages that perish mainly do so utterly, taking their lexicons, narratives and worlds with them.

Knowing that is what has sparked my own interest in writing without words -- endurance of meaning in the absence of endurance of text or speech.

Laudine said...

If you're interested in further reading on dying languages, you may wish to check out Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, which is mostly anecdotal travel journalism, and David Nettle's scholarly Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages (which I read only in part). Abley touches on the role of Bible translations in preserving the vocabulary and grammar of moribund languages (and thus providing the groundwork without which it's difficult to revitalize a language). However, and I don't think Abley discusses this, if we consider language as a culture-bearing and culture-creating act/artifact, we must wonder what distortions of and omissions from a culture's ideas and values must be involved in such a transmission. The problems of translation and truth that MKH referred to apply here, but even more so. But I'll complicate that below. (I don't wholeheartedly recommend Abley; his shortcomings of insight and cultural sensitivity are notable.)

>>Preserving the languages is important, and these linguists are performing a service to future study, but how much can they really preserve?

I think it depends. Hebrew, Yiddish, Te Reo Māori, Welsh, Dutch, and Anishinaabemowin have had wildly different fates based on dispersals and consolidations of (not to mention suppressions of) cultural, national, and ethnic identities, the lives of native and adoptive speakers, and written records. There are, I presume, no more native speakers of OE, but the written language is still accessible to a community of scholars who are not bound by any such identity. If OE scholars committed to a revivalist movement and taught OE to their toddlers, they might succeed better than might the two last speakers of an aboriginal language whose grandchildren were stolen by the Australian government in the 1970s. Or might not.

I agree that a language and culture reduced to a linguist's notes suffers a devastating loss. But I think we're far from being limited to regarding those notes as relevant only to the scholar of dead languages, or as expressing only a tenuous meaning through translation. They may be the only means for a people to converge and resuscitate a language, and thereby a culture as well. The cultural ideas that have disappeared from a people's daily existence may still be expressed in a grammar or vocabulary, and can serve as zones of invention and interpretation for new practitioners just as they did when the language flourished. And though of course anything that escapes the record might be irrevocably lost, and the people and fragments of culture forgotten, a living language might still reemerge: languages persist, and are preserved, by change. Even a living language like modern English does not express an unbroken continuity of culture: suppression and fluctuation of identities, cultures, and stories happens within living languages too, as you at ITM ponder all the time. Yet we go on speaking and writing English, passing it on, and making it new, or doing all those things and being silenced anyway. The transmission of unqiue languages into a narrow channel like the Bible both preserves and destroys; the translation of OE into modern English both preserves and destroys--but what would we lose if not for translation, and if not for MKH's conscious, ethical attempts to understand, respect, and make intelligible the differences between our ideas and meanings and those of long-dead, or otherwise dissimilar, minds? Translation of languages that have died a long time ago, or very recently, is a way to keep the vestiges of those meanings alive, for lack of a people to speak them--or until a culture that claims and reinvents that language can reform.

The Times article's wording is odd and disingenuous. Certainly a language can be "overwhelmed" in "bilingual cultures"; an Amazonian language may "give way" to Portuguese or Spanish; examples that might fit the Times rubric without doing an extremely violent injustice are the vanishing of Dutch as a spoken language (though Belgium might shake things up there) or the endangerment of the other Scandinavian languages by Swedish. But not, say, rain forest destruction that sends villagers fleeing to the cities and burns all the plants that the sacred medicinal language is based on. Or the extermination of cultures and languages of the indigenous peoples of Rwanda or the U.S. But then there's the wonder of a place like Queens Co., where the speakers of 138 languages can, ideally, also communicate with each other in a monolithic, imperialistic language. It's ironic that the same political and economic forces that destroy cultures and languages can, rarely, be used to subvert the destruction--e.g., efforts at maintaining local economies and populations, thereby preserving cultures and languages--coordinated by international finance, international policy, and dominant, international languages. If it were possible to imagine a united global effort to protect cultural and linguistic diversity, to what extent could it be conducted without all the nasty forms of globalization that destroy diversity?

Eileen Joy said...

First I would like to say to laudine: wow, what a fantastic response to MKH's post, especially this:

"The transmission of unique languages into a narrow channel like the Bible both preserves and destroys; the translation of OE into modern English both preserves and destroys--but what would we lose if not for translation, and if not for MKH's conscious, ethical attempts to understand, respect, and make intelligible the differences between our ideas and meanings and those of long-dead, or otherwise dissimilar, minds? Translation of languages that have died a long time ago, or very recently, is a way to keep the vestiges of those meanings alive, for lack of a people to speak them--or until a culture that claims and reinvents that language can reform."

I likewise appreciate JJC's comment, which somewhat opposes laudine's, and which might be called a reality check, that what happens to stories that are not passed down is "silence," and further,

"in the cold calculus of survival, languages that perish mainly do so utterly, taking their lexicons, narratives and worlds with them."

I had promised myself a week of e-silence and non-communication after the violent death of my cat Huck this past Wednesday evening, but in some ways, MKH's post calls on me to, at the very least, begin parsing out some ideas of loss and recuperation, if even only in relation to so-called "dead" languages. I think that, on one level, when we talk about our own feelings, as scholars of dead languages, over that which has "passed away," and how we want to be able to say we were able to "preserve" some of what those languages intended to do [or to "translate" as effectively as possible into a modern idiom what former, now lost persons were, we think, "trying" to say], we sometimes gloss over the fact that language, and the persons who utter language, never knew themselves what they were trying to "say," at least, not entirely. Language is always an attempt, an "essai," never the thing itself, whatever that "thing" is that someone is trying to express [the only exception being more performative speech acts, such as the marriage ceremony's "I do" or a judge's "you are hereby condemned to death by lethal injection," and even then, intentions can be muddled in the act of speaking/iterating]. When we claim that we are intent on rescuing or recuperating or preserving a "lost" or extinct culture through its language, we engage [a little bit] in a type of nostalgia for something that we think "was," but which, in point of fact, like us, was always becoming and never really "arrived." Thus, I love laudine's compelling argument that,

"The cultural ideas that have disappeared from a people's daily existence may still be expressed in a grammar or vocabulary, and can serve as zones of invention and interpretation for new practitioners just as they did when the language flourished. And though of course anything that escapes the record might be irrevocably lost, and the people and fragments of culture forgotten, a living language might still reemerge: languages persist, and are preserved, by change. Even a living language like modern English does not express an unbroken continuity of culture: suppression and fluctuation of identities, cultures, and stories happens within living languages too . . . ."

Fluctuation, my friends, fluctuation. We are historians and translators of nothing but fluctuation. Similar to James Earl, who argued in his 1994 book "Thinking About Beowulf," that the

"system of relations—of us to Beowulf, of Beowulf to the Anglo-Saxons, and of the Anglo-Saxons to us—constitutes the meaning of Beowulf" (p. 168),

I would argue that we have to rethink what might be called our translation practice to take into account the *relationality* [even, the relationalities] between old and more new languages, old and more new frames of thought, old and more new styles of speech, etc. And I would quibble with MKH that she is not a poet, for if her blog posts of the past year or so are any indication, she is indeed a poet. Being a poet does not just mean writing so-called "poems"[sonnets, lyrics, etc., traditionally defined] or transforming everyday speech, events, and thought into a particular meter, lyric, pattern of words, etc., that could be called "poetry," in the way Seamus Heaney's translation of "Beowulf" or Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is poetry, but rather, "poetry" means translating what is essentially unrepresentatble in conventional mimetic-type fashion into a linguistic register that is as concerned with the beauty of language as it is with the truth, especially when we understand that aiming for beauty also means aiming for the truth [when we understand the truth as something ultimately elusive that can only be caught in the interstices of "event"/this-ness and "becoming," and that one can choose to delineate the movements within these interstices "scientifically" or more "poetically"]. So, one can be a poet even when one is not writing, strictly speaking, poems. Is not our every utterance a type of poetry?

Everything, in point of fact, even those living alongside us whom we love fiercely, is already lost to us, even, already dead. When we worry about the languages we have not yet even learned, or have learned not well enough [yet], dying out and taking with them everything we *might* have known about the past, what we are really mourning is our own oblivion. Let's try to to remember, then, that every act of translation, is not really a gift to to the dead, but is instead a reassurance to ourselves that language--whatever, whoever's language--might still matter in making the world make sense. The idea, then, in translating Old English poetry, would not be just to be "faithful" to the past, whatever that might be, but to be faithful to our desire to *want* to believe that we could somehow faithfully, or at least *beautifully* register the deep fulcrum of human and Other worldly experience and to the idea that the expression of that experience [whether a cat's meow or Whitman's yawp or the Beowulf-poet's "hwaet!"] is always worth re-membering, re-calling, and re-voicing, but not because it [the translated poem] is what *they* wanted, but because it is what *we* need, now. It is only an illusion that some pasts are disappearing and that other pasts are still [more] with us. It would be a measure of the worth of our "poetry" [our historical scholarship] that we loved too much, not what was already gone, but what is passing away beside us now, at this moment. And if we could somehow register how all of history inheres in what is always beside us, if we could make poetry of the *passing* of that, that would be a worthy endeavor, even an ethical scholarship, albeit ultimately futile. And perhaps that was MKH's point all along.

Steve Muhlberger said...

This may be sad, but it's a sadness that has existed since the world began.

pkaustin said...

For more information about what is going on with Endangered Languages have a look at http://www.hrelp.org or http://www.mpi.nl/dobes or http://www.neh.gov/grants/guidelines/del.html. At these websites you will see descriptions of hundreds of projects quietly doing similar work to that described in the NYT article, many of them in much closer collaboration with communities and with much more focus on language revitalisation and support than the people you report on.

While it is true that languages have been lost throughout human history the speed at which this is happening now and the global geographical spread of the language and cultural loss means that it is a totally different order of magnitude to what we have seen in past human history.

Eileen Joy said...

I just want to second pkaustin's observation that, while everything in history, to a certain extent, "passes away," the speed at which that is happening now is unbelievable, and a little scary. And not just languages, but seeds, plant and animal species, "wild" territories, etc. Michael Pollan's first chapter, on the apple, in his book "The Botany of Desire," is a beautiful description of how this happens and why it is somewhat tragic.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Dan> I've been wondering a lot about translation as a work of mourning, lately. I am always left haunted by something living that cannot be, refuses to be, put to rest. That's the haunting thing, really -- that there's still something in there, something I am but do not wish to be responsible for in my translation.

JJC>But in the cold calculus of survival, languages that perish mainly do so utterly, taking their lexicons, narratives and worlds with them. / Knowing that is what has sparked my own interest in writing without words -- endurance of meaning in the absence of endurance of text or speech.

I think that's where my post was intersecting with ones that you've written over the past week(s) -- that there's some kind of one-way portal in the very physicality of these objects/monuments/things that moves forward something words can no longer interpret. It would seem, also, to have to do with the call these places/things can have (written so beautifully about by Nick Howe) -- the work of engagement or translation, or interpretation or mourning that these sites demand.

Laudine> beautiful response -- I'm particularly grateful for your observation that: Even a living language like modern English does not express an unbroken continuity of culture: suppression and fluctuation of identities, cultures, and stories happens within living languages too, as you at ITM ponder all the time. Yet we go on speaking and writing English, passing it on, and making it new, or doing all those things and being silenced anyway. How easy it is to forget that discourse becomes something that can and often does dominate our feeble attempts to use language to express -- what? Ourselves? Our lives? It reminds me of Beckett: "you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me". I'm hardly a Beckett scholar, and I know very little of the novel from which that line comes (The Unnameable) -- but I wonder about it. That relentless drive, to say words as long as there are any, to find some way in front of the things we cannot speak to just go on -- if that doesn't speak to the situation we find ourselves in in language. I'm not expressing myself clearly, but I might take a second shot at this later...

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Eileen > First, and foremost: I am so sorry for your loss.

I would argue that we have to rethink what might be called our translation practice to take into account the *relationality* [even, the relationalities] between old and more new languages, old and more new frames of thought, old and more new styles of speech, etc.

I love this idea. Meaning is always made between two things, in a gap that may not be obvious in the language we use, either write or to write about poetry. It's sometimes evident -- I'm thinking particularly in Old English poetry, but then I would think that.

And if we could somehow register how all of history inheres in what is always beside us, if we could make poetry of the *passing* of that, that would be a worthy endeavor, even an ethical scholarship, albeit ultimately futile. And perhaps that was MKH's point all along.

I don't know if it was my point all along -- after all, meaning is made between, in the middle even, of two or more entities -- but I wonder if what I'm after, finally, is a poetics of history. I'm not quite sure what I mean by that. But I'm caught thinking that maybe, for me, studying the way in which the past inheres in what is here, now (if anything really is) is a way of finding hope in a future that can be aware of loss, can be attuned to it in such a way that allows for some sense of respect for the living, whom we cannot know anymore than we can know the dead.

Another friend, who studies early modern, was discussing the futility (or lack thereof) of scholarship, the reasons why we study the past, the reasons why we try to think about translation, history, time, nationhood, all of it. I was, in a way typical of the MKH of two years ago, saying something (defiantly) to the effect of "I just don't see how this can really change the world."

My friend's response: It changed your world.

Where does all this connect? Back where you saw it Eileen: Everything's already lost. So, ...that every act of translation, is not really a gift to to the dead, but is instead a reassurance to ourselves that language--whatever, whoever's language--might still matter in making the world make sense. The idea, then, in translating Old English poetry, would not be just to be "faithful" to the past, whatever that might be, but to be faithful to our desire to *want* to believe that we could somehow faithfully, or at least *beautifully* register the deep fulcrum of human and Other worldly experience and to the idea that the expression of that experience [whether a cat's meow or Whitman's yawp or the Beowulf-poet's "hwaet!"] is always worth re-membering, re-calling, and re-voicing, but not because it [the translated poem] is what *they* wanted, but because it is what *we* need, now.

Poet Andrew Zawacki has a beautiful line in a poem I'm not sure he's published yet (I heard it a reading) -- something about "fidelity to a language faithful only to itself." And maybe the dual bind implied there (to the letter, in a sense, and to the spirit, of language) might say something as well: language never means by itself.

highlyeccentric said...

MKH- a truly lovely post, thank you :) I love to hear other people are loving Old English for its own sake. After discovering OE, i find modern English a distinctly unloveable language...

But I wonder why that is. Why is it that I can love Old English so passionately, and yet not its modern descendant? What does that say about me, if I have lost my love for the language I grew up with? If my appreciation of modern english is reduced to treasuring the surving germanic patterns therein...

Is it the otherness? I used to love Shakespeare. I railed against those who wanted to "teach" shakespearean language to high-school kids, as if it were something utterly alien to them. I wanted it to be spoken, read, loved as our *own* and yet removed from us.
There's something about a language which is Mine-And-Yet-Not-Mine. OE does have to be taught as a whole language... it is more Not-Mine than Mine. Yet somehow I feel that if only i could look at in the right way, study it for long enough or read it in the right tone, then i could possess it.

And Dan Remein's turns of phrase have started to rub off on me, obviously. :)

in short, very interesting and thank you.