What We Carry On Our Tongues

I read this article today with a bit of sadness mixed with deep interest. As a native English speaker, who has only taken other languages for fun, I find the topic of endangered languages very interesting. After all, English is rapidly becoming the singular language in many places. Linguistic studies indicate that speakers of other languages soon lose their original tongue after immigration (usually by the third generation).

So what’s the problem? What does losing an obscure language cost all of us? The article spells it out: culture. Poetry, literature (usually oral), traditions, and beliefs, these are all lost to us once a language dies out. Of course, in some cases, we’re able to translate documents or eventually unlock what’s left behind, as in the case of Linear B, but the intrinsic native meaning of so much is lost forever.

Anthropology 101 was a long time ago, so long in fact that we had 101s, but I was fascinated by the potential of other, primitive cultures. One fact I carried away was the study of oral literature and memory “hooks,” those oft repeated phrases in the Iliad or Odyssey, which help the poets catch a moment of mental breath in order to remember more of the epic poem. What epics are lost when a culture vanishes?

In fantasy, there are always ruins. Our characters inhabit a world that they don’t often well understand. Whether they are the remnants of our own technological age, an alien civilization, or simply other cultures, ruins are wonderful doorways into the imagination. We often project our own cultural expectations onto them, which is definitely made easier when we cannot read what literature might be available. It took Archeology and Anthropology (both fairly young sciences) a while to understand that a clinical removal of perspective is necessary, but even then, Anthropologists realized that a studied people react differently than an unstudied one. It all comes back to “show not tell.” We can read a story, we can translate it, but it will never be the same as what the initial culture experienced, and that’s the tragedy of a lost language.

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