This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four field seasons, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and his Maya crew had cleared tons of rubble and fill from steep steps leading down inside the pyramid. The archaeologist had no idea where the steps would take them, only a persistent thought that it could be somewhere important.
The crew struggled another two days with the door, finally shifting it enough for a man to squeeze sideways past. As Ruz moved beyond it, he shone a flashlight into the void. “It was a moment,” he later wrote, “of indescribable emotion.” Read more.
Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by tato grasso
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 . Read more…