Just another slip of the tongue

When a language dies, something unique has inevitably been lost for ever. But is there any point in resuscitating it, when it's probably outlived its usefulness?
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The Independent Online

My first language began to die on me the day I was born. I blame my mother for that. She didn't much approve of Sheffieldish, though she spoke it herself. It was too broad (Sheffieldish for vulgar), not the sort of stuff that should be issuing from the mouth of a person who wanted to better himself. That was also the reason for my sister being forced to take elocution lessons - to get rid of all those nasty northernnesses - the pronunciations, and even the words themselves. Nazzy, mithered and such like.

My first language began to die on me the day I was born. I blame my mother for that. She didn't much approve of Sheffieldish, though she spoke it herself. It was too broad (Sheffieldish for vulgar), not the sort of stuff that should be issuing from the mouth of a person who wanted to better himself. That was also the reason for my sister being forced to take elocution lessons - to get rid of all those nasty northernnesses - the pronunciations, and even the words themselves. Nazzy, mithered and such like.

I thought Sheffieldish was a small language in those days. People used it to communicate with each other. Other people, folks from elsewhere for example, didn't have the faintest idea what we were on about. Quite right, too. So it had to be a language, didn't it? Later on, some nosy get said it was a dialect. I gave him what for.

People didn't care too much about what happened to small languages in those days. Now some people say they care desperately, especially poets, linguists and anthropologists, all professionals with a vested interest in the idea of language survival. David Crystal's new book, Language Death, sums up the melodramatic attitude. It's a local, a national, an international tragedy when a small language passes on. Something irreplaceable disappears. That's not necessarily true. The death of a language may also mean that it's outlived its usefulness.

I was reminded of all this just the other day when I picked up the August issue of the great and immensely worthy and long-lived Harper's Magazine. The lead article was by an American anthropologist, Earl Shorris. It was called "The Last Word - can the world's small languages be saved?" It was a real weepie, full of anthropological special-pleading, dripping with guilt and self-flagellation for all the crimes of the past. One sentence will give you the mood music: "The worm of my error was hidden by the immense suffering of the Indians..." That word "worm" turns in the reader's heart too - or, if it doesn't, it better damned well had.

Everything Shorris writes is screwed up to a key of intense personal anguish. Here are the bald facts he presents us with. According to the linguist Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Centre, as many as 3,000 languages - "half of all the words on earth" - are "doomed to silence in the next century". English, that nasty old boor and bully, is kicking all the other little kids out of the playground.

And even English is beginning to suffer from muscle-wastage. "You need only look at the thin thesaurus that came with your word-processing program to see how the English language is losing its internal diversity," says Mr Shorris. But who, frankly, is to blame if he penny pinched by buying inferior software? Why not go out and buy the Complete Oxford English Dictionary on CD-rom? Unfortunately, dictionaries are another sticking point. Mr Shorris can barely bring himself to pick one up these days, though another part of him still wants to hug the things to death. "The letters 'obs' in the dictionary pain me," he writes. "Another word is passing; the vocabulary available to the writer is shrinking. Hard to bear."

Vocabulary shrinkage?! I hadn't noticed Don DeLillo struggling with that problem in his recent slab of a novel. I haven't yet reached for a word in this piece and found myself staring into some terrible, yawning absence. I haven't yet located a feeling, no matter how tortured, which couldn't find a corresponding phrase. On the contrary, I could bore you to death with all my feeling words. And anyway, didn't Racine thrive on a limited vocabulary?

But what of the words and concepts, often regarded as sacred, that are peculiar to those dead or dying languages? When a language dies, sacred metaphysical concepts go with it, never to be conceived again. What some tribal elder thought about the bark of that tree over there by the stream, for example. Ways of looking, seeing, thinking, feeling are lost to the world. But does that matter very much? Has something unique really disappeared from the world? Inevitably.

But something unique passed from the world when Frankie Howerd passed away. Other comics - not so good - came along by and by, and we gradually began to forget. Why weep and moan so much then? Human beings have the capacity to renew and re-invent themselves and their gods in entirely different languages. When all those immigrants poured into America at the turn of the century, in many cases they lost not only their languages, but their former identities. And they also gained something quite new and potentially explosive - the possibility of re-making themselves as citizens of America. This was not necessarily a tragedy, though it was born out of tragedy. So let us not weep too much when words and notions pass away. New words come along. New gods too.

And the old words are not necessarily adequate to the burden and the responsibility of living in the present anyway. The vocabularies of small, ancient languages are often arcane, backward-looking and inflexible. They have no way of coping with the present because their life is in the past. They belong to that past. And, lacking any current reality, not only some reason for jostling along in the present with all the rest of us, but also the way of life, often pastoral, which matches the linguistic life that their own vocabularies embody and describe, they cannot but wither away.

Can they really describe the glorious flavour of pecorino cheese, the stylishness of washing machines, the zip and zap of e-mails? They may have been sufficient unto the needs of the past, but they just can't cope with the future without making a bit of a fool of themselves. Have you not noticed those road signs in Wales, how often the new Welsh coinages seem to descend into a kind of absurdly bathetic self-parody?

Some years ago, I felt quite the opposite about all these things. I once listened to the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean declaiming his poetry at the South Bank. He was magnificent to hear and to behold - like some old, gnarled tree bent by the wind. I felt a peculiar mixture of emotions that evening - pain, wonder and a kind of awe-struck, ecstatic bewilderment.

Pain, because I may (yes, may; how did I know?) have been listening to the last great poet of a dying Gaeldom; wonder, that such relics should have survived so long, he and his language; and ecstatic bewilderment, because I could not pretend to myself that I understood a single word of what he was saying, though I was admiring to the skies what he seemed to represent. The poetry was, for the most part, about the past - Mallaig, the ancestors, the Clearances. Ghosts. All ghosts.

And after the Gaelic versions, he read his own translations into English. These were deeply disappointing, I felt, stilted, somewhat awkward. The idiom seemed to lack vitality. It had lost everything in translation. It took me quite a long time for me to acknowledge that fact to myself because I so much wanted it to be otherwise. I wanted to maintain some unsustainable dream of him.

Is it possible to resuscitate such a thing as this, so full of lamentation and backward glances, as a living language? Of course not. Artificial resuscitation won't help either. The future faces forward. Let them all go then, with a cheery, thankful wave, those untenable ghosts...

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