24 January 2008

If language were liquid it would be rushing in

I read on the BBC that the last native speaker of the Eyak language has died in Alaska. In "Collapse" Jared Diamond talks about the total deforestation of Easter Island, and wonders what went through the mind of the person who chopped down the island's last tree, did they realise the enormity of what they were doing? Marie Smith Jones, the last Eyak speaker, was very much aware of the implications of her own death.

From the limited exposure to hermeneutics that I received many years ago I developed a fascination with concepts that are unique to a particular language as a result of the history, environment and culture that shaped that language. In English we tend to appropriate words that we like that express ideas that have no equivalent in our own tongue; "Sitz im lieben" and "schadenfreude" are far more than just the simple sum of the individual words, the concepts they evoke are complex and multilayered, impossible to describe succinctly. They also tell so much about the culture that gave rise to them, about their users thought processes, motivations and Weltanschauung (sorry).

To me the tragedy of the loss of a language is the fact that so many unique concepts, born from a unique environment and culture, are now lost for ever. There are thoughts that could never be fully expressed in any other medium that now will never be shared. The sum of human knowledge and consciousness is lessened tonight, and the sad truth is that we will never know by how much.
"She understood as only someone in her unique position could, what it meant to be the last of her kind...She understood what was at stake and its significance, and bore that tragic mantle with grace and dignity" - Michael Krauss


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