Languages die out, taking history along

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    By Brittany Karford

    Kuna. Klctza. C?u, ma chin ?aje. There are many ways to say goodbye in Mam. But soon the world may be saying farewell to the Mayan language and the culture in which it originated.

    Along with Mam, the United Nations estimates half of the world?s 6,000 languages will disappear in less than a century, while half of the world?s people now use one of just eight languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and French.

    ?Compared with the biology of species, that?s like nothing surviving but the top-ten predators,? said Lyle Campbell, a professor of linguistics at the University of Utah. ?You can see that the magnitude of losing languages at the current rate will be a catastrophe for humanity.?

    Many linguists are scrambling to save dying languages, while others say it is simply the natural evolution of languages to continually develop, change and die off, just like species of plants and animals. In either case, the globalization of language is changing the cultural makeup of the world and experts say even modern language is being compressed and reduced to mean less.

    Campbell is actively involved in language revitalization because he said he thinks the wisdom of the world is encoded in its languages. He is closely involved in the preservation of many Mayan and Native American Indian languages but documenting a language through literature, tapes and video is a massive undertaking, let alone restoring it in schools and the community. Though Campbell and other such professors may stem the tide, most threatened languages will remain doomed.

    Aging populations, economic pressure and youth apathy for old traditions are only some of the conditions leading to the endangerment of a language. However, traditional ethnic languages in Africa are fading out for a different reason. More than 30 different languages used to be spoken in Uganda but the official language is now English.

    After spending a semester as a political affairs intern in the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, Micheal Bowerbank, a senior from Concord, Calif., said Uganda has adopted English as its official language to avoid favoring only one of the country?s many tribes, increasing unity and the opportunity for trade with the rest of the world.

    ?They only teach English in the schools now,? Bowerbank said. ?Native languages are not taught anymore. Eventually they?ll disappear.?

    A speaker of 52 different languages, David Stewart said once a language is lost, the culture behind it is also lost. Stewart, a BYU graduate who now resides in Colorado, is a wholesale translator for a long list of clients, including the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and companies like Boeing and IBM, to name a few.

    ?Language preserves more culture than any other thing,? Stewart said. ?You can learn more about a people by learning their language than by visiting their country.?

    Stewart said every language contains a value system and a way of thinking peculiar to it. While German is one of the best languages for a mechanical process, he said it would be poor in describing a walk through a forest. But, Portuguese, though clumsy in speaking of a mechanical process, is quite beautiful in describing scenery.

    However, description in modern languages is much different than expression in ancient languages. Stewart said today?s languages are becoming crude in their ability to convey meaning. He gave one example of the Sumerian word for bird, mushen, which has several meanings, such as ?bird of morning.? The English word today would need several supplemental words to illustrate the same point.

    ?English is becoming duller, like an old hatchet,? Stewart said. ?The distinct languages in the world are like colored layers of sand in a bottle being shaken until they are no longer recognizable.?

    But more than just a word?s descriptive power, Janis Nuckolls, a sociology professor at BYU, said there is a specific worldview contained in the words of a language. Nuckolls specializes in Quechua, the largest indigenous language spoken throughout South America. The use of idiophones in Quechua gives words a particular symbolic ecology that Nuckolls said represents the culture?s animistic outlook on their world: a belief that everything has a life and energy.

    ?We live in a very disenchanted world,? Nuckolls said. ?Our culture of science constrains us in certain ways regarding our language use. You never know what you are losing with the unique usage that may never be formed again in a language.?

    But Ray Clifford, the director of the Center for Language Studies at BYU, is not alarmed. As language is constantly evolving, Clifford said even the English language of today would not be readily recognized by Shakespeare. To Clifford, the number of languages in existence today is evidence of man?s creativity. Despite fewer languages, the people of the world are increasing their ability to communicate across groups.

    ?The goal of world peace will never be achieved without mutual understanding,? Clifford said. ?You cannot achieve mutual understanding without effective communication, which shared language can provide.?

    And a connected world does have advantages. For many indigenous Mayan peoples, Spanish, as opposed to their native languages, is the means of obtaining advanced technology and better medicine ? imperative in an area of the world where half of the children die before they are two years old.

    John Robertson, a linguistics professor at BYU, has worked extensively with indigenous Mayan languages for almost 40 years and said sacrificing the traditional languages for Spanish is a complex trade-off.

    ?The traditional languages are wonderful because of their beauty and complexity, but they are being taken over by Spanish,? Robertson said. ?Scientific advances are corrosive to the preservation of old traditions which are located in the language.?

    But perhaps cultural tradition and technological advancement don?t have to be mutually exclusive, seen through the efforts of many cultures that are working hard to preserve the languages of their past.

    Danny Cannon, a junior from Holliday, Utah, speaks K?ekchi?, one of more than 30 official languages in Guatemala. Cannon said the country has made so many languages official in order to preserve them. The government is also making great efforts to write languages down and require indigenous language education in the school system.

    ?I think that saving a language preserves more culture than anything,? Cannon said.

    Whatever the future of the world?s languages, professor Campbell said language will continue to be a marker of ethnic identity for its speakers. The speakers of Mam border Mexico and continue to be influenced by Spanish. If Mam is robust it may survive to echo the culture that created it, for if it disappears, although the voice of the people won?t die, part of their past will.

    There is another way to say goodbye in the Mayan language of Mam ? Q?onk chipena. It means strength to all.

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