Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us, I admit, than others.) Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English. No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue. No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.” You are alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.
That, of course, is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world. The Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example, that in the United States alone, 42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost: it’s “the DNA of a culture,” as Bruce Cole, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S., once put it so aptly .
Two very cool projects that I’ve just come across (here and here), however, suggest that help is on the way. In New York State, the Unkechaug and Shinnecock Nations are joining forces with linguists at Stony Brook University to resurrect their native tongues, which died out some 50 to 200 years ago.
The team will be drawing on a host of written records–including an Unkechaug word list that Thomas Jefferson drew up on June 13, 1791, when he visited the region–and what might be a tape of people speaking Unkechaug seventy years ago. From these and from comparisons with closely related and better documented languages in the Algonquian language family, the team will begin reconstructing what the extinct languages were probably like.
And then there is The Rosetta Project (thanks, Quentin Mackie, for drawing this to my attention), which is an incredible work in progress. Inspired by the famous Rosetta Stone, the project organizers are compiling detailed documentation on more than 1500 languages from around the world. For each language, they are collecting info on grammar, pronunciation, syntax, vocabulary, and, when possible, written texts such as oral narratives. The intention is to create a massive “decoder ring” for any information they leave future generations. But it’s clear to me that they are also collecting the basic building blocks that would allow future linguists to reclaim lost languages.
And here’s the kicker. Remember how I harped on yesterday about the incredibly ephemeral nature of flash drives and other digital storage systems. Well the people at The Rosetta Project are really on top of this. They have stored 14,000 pages of their data on the surface of 3-inch diameter nickel disk. There’s no digital encoding: instead the project organizers have etched photos of each page on the disk. You’ll need to put the little disk under a microscope, but it’s all there for the reading. And the disk should last for thousands of years.
Maybe it’s not too late, after all, to recover the cultural DNA of hundreds of tribal groups around the world.