Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Going Extinct

I read this in the Writer's Almanac this morning:

"It was on this day in 2003 that Marja Sergina, the last known speaker of the Akkala Sami language, died. Akkala Sami was spoken in villages on Russia's Kola Peninsula inhabited by the Sami (sometimes referred to as Laplanders), an ethnic group from Northern Europe who are best known as reindeer herders.
There are more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world, and on average, one goes extinct about every two weeks. Researchers estimate that from 50 to 90 percent of those languages will be extinct in 100 years. "

I am trying to figure out why this is making me so sad. When I was in elementary school, I was so excited when I first read in the Golden Book Encyclopedia (those wonderful, fascinating volumes that my parents brought home once a week from the grocery store) about Esperanto: the universal language. It seemed like such a hopeful dream, that all human beings would one day speak in a single tongue. I remember wanting to study Esperanto when I went off to college. Claudia Mills, Esperanto major!

Now I wonder why I ever thought the loss of linguistic diversity would be a good thing rather than a sad thing. Now I want to sign up to learn, not Esperanto, but Akkala Sami, to bring it back to life again. But of course, I can't do this, and you can't, either. It still wouldn't be a living, breathing language, even if I diligently tried to master its grammar and vocabulary. It's not only the language that has vanished forever, but a whole way of life.

Of course, ways of life disappear all the time. Look how much has changed just in my lifetime, and perhaps in yours as well. Not all ways of life have to endure forever; it's only natural, and to be expected, that we all change how we live because of technology, cultural exchange, the inexorable forces of globalization.

And yet. And yet, today I'm sad for languages that are no more, and for all the words that will never again be spoken in those languages. Words are so precious. The loss of any of them should be mourned by all of us.

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