Language is the roadmap to culture.
– Wayne Newell, Passamaquoddy elder
Click for larger image.
Minna Sundberg’s illustration, which maps the relationships between Indo-European and Uralic languages but not Asian-Australian, offers a perspective on our roots.
Our history is in what we say, yet of the more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today – many of them unrecorded – up to half may disappear in this century. As languages vanish, communities lose a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous communities, and the biodiversity of the natural environment.
Here in Indonesia, according to the UNESCO Language Atlas data set1 there are 120 Indonesian languages in decline, mere twigs on the language tree.
Of the 120, 46 are ‘vulnerable’, 27 are ‘definitely endangered’, 17 are ‘severely endangered’, and 26 are ‘critically endangered’. Timor-Leste, so recently an Indonesian province, has six languages on the ‘endangered list’, and one extinct.2
A country such as Indonesia, with a constitution which recognises pluralism and has a developing democracy, needs to recognise the importance of these languages; yet few of them are being recorded3.
Some thirty years ago4, I had a conversation with Barbara, an anthropologist about to trek into the Zanskar valley in the Himalayas to record a dying language. I suggested that in recording a language for prosperity its development is arrested. An oral tradition is transmuted into a static form, the solitary skills of reading and writing. That gives rise to the potential danger of a people’s culture, one reliant on communality, breaking down. The recording of a language requires a norm, a standardisation. Given an established set of parameters, there is scope for control.
I now feel that although that premise is valid, having the ‘wisdom’ of an extinct culture available for historians, future generations may yet benefit. There will come a time when globalism will have run its course, and pockets of homo sapiens will need survival skills. They will adapt to their immediate environment and will only consume for their needs rather than their wants.
And if they can decode the languages of the past, then it might be possible for a less acquisitive civilisation to emerge.
1 I have extracted the data for Indonesia and Timor Leste for the purposes of this post. Anus – stop sniggering at the back there – anus, the fifth language listed, is critically endangered because at the last count there were only 320 people in the tribe on an island off the Jayapura, West Papua, coast.
2 Batak is a ‘definitely endangered’ language in the Philippines spoken by no more than 1,500 nomadic forest dwellers on the island of Palawan. My wife, a Batak from North Sumatra, is no relation. She doesn’t go bare-breasted nor wear clothes made from bark.
3 The Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) run by the British Library has a number of projects digitalising fragile documents from Indonesia (and other countries).
4 I spent three months in Ladakh, and my diary is downloadable from here.