Fieldnotes – My Grandmother’s Language

The importance of biological diversity is fairly widely appreciated. But far fewer people are aware of, or are concerned about, the loss of cultural diversity – in particular the attrition and disappearance of languages.

Something like 6700 languages – perhaps fewer – are spoken around the world. One of them dies (meaning its last remaining speaker dies) every two weeks. More than half of the world’s tongues are in danger of not surviving this century. The problem is especially acute in the case of small, indigenous languages.

In Native North America, language loss has reached critical proportions. We don’t know how many languages were spoken on this continent in 1492, but it’s clear than many languages – hundreds? – disappeared without a trace. In other cases, we have recordings of elderly speakers, dissertations by linguistics students, or sometimes just haphazard word lists compiled by missionaries as the only record of what were once vibrant languages. Today there are about 170 or so Native American languages still spoken. Around half of them are down to a handful of elderly speakers, and only a few – perhaps seven or eight – are in no immediate danger.

For many people – especially those whose only language is a major world language such as English, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, etc. – a language is merely an abstract vehicle of communication, comprised of words and expressions that seem to be interchangeable. After all, a house is a house, a fish is a fish, a computer is a computer, no matter what word we name it by, right?

But languages, of course, are much more than that. Languages are living things, a means for a group of human beings to interact with, and frame, their reality.

There is no such thing as a ‘primitive’ language, whether or not it has a written literature. Many languages have complex ways of defining and describing spatial relationships, or the passage of time. Many have highly nuanced classifications for different types of animate and inanimate objects. All have rich vocabularies to describe the environment in which the speakers find themselves.

Tribal languages in North America have roots in a specific place, and cannot be separated from that place, or from the history of the people who speak or spoke that language. Each of them represents a unique expression of the complexity of human experience.

That is why the efforts of people like Darrel Kipp matter so much.