Sunday, March 18, 2007

Some Recent Reading on Languages

Here are a few interesting, recent articles about language, three from the New York Times and one from the Financial Times.

The first is a book review of two books about English. Readers of this blog already know I am interested in books about language, and I plan to check out When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by
Ben Yagoda and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal, who has previously been mentioned heree.

second piece is about the Oxford English Dictionary, and it touches on how the dictionary was created, how words make it in there, word formation, the sources of the citations in the OED, and other topics. As one person says in the article, “It’s not just about the language. It’s about tracking history through the language.”

The other two articles are about the endangered Manchu language of China. The first of these articles details the history of the Manchu people, the dynasty, and the language. Only the oldest generation in a particular region of China seems to use Manchu; an older lady, Meng Shujing, interviewed in the article thinks that only “five or six of her neighbors” can speak it fluently. She is quoted as saying, “I don’t have much time…I don’t even know if I have tomorrow, but I will use the time to teach my grandchildren. It is our language; how can we let it die? We are Manchu people.” The article states that the “disappearance of Manchu will be part of a mass extinction of languages that some experts forecast will lead to the loss of half of the world’s 6,800 languages by the end of the century.” This is a really unfortunate fact. What happens when those languages are gone?

Well, much of the history and culture that were embedded in and preserved in each lost tongue is sadly lost, or become the province of a few experts and/or people have to rely on translators to make the information available to the general public. The second of these two articles on Manchu mentions just this issue. There are apparently many documents about the Qing Dynasty in Manchu, but since so few people know the language, there are only 40 translators working on translating them (presumably to Chinese, although that is not specified): “Scholars estimate that about 20 percent of the 10 million files in the massive Qing archive in Beijing are written in Manchu.” Imagine how long it will take those 40 translators to translate all those files!

Enjoy these varied articles on language!


Anonymous said...

I thought the Manchu article in the NYT was fascinating, myself. And it's definitely sad when a language dies out. Of course it's also a huge amount of effort to learn a second language as an adult, especially to any real degree of fluency. To keep a language from dying out, children must learn it. One great way for this to happen is to have children spend a fair amount of time with older people who are native speakers of rare languages.

I took a Lushootseed class here in Seattle a few years ago. Lushootseed is also a rapidly dying language. The instructor was a native speaker, but only because her parents had happened to die when she was young and she was raised by her grandparents, who still spoke Lushootseed as their primary home language.

I really think there are enormous benefits from having younger and older generations mix more than they currently do in many first-world societies. This could also go a long way toward helping preserve languages.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment!
You have an excellent point about how some languages would survive longer if generations would mix more. Sometimes, of course, it's the older generation that purposely discards a language and won't teach it to the children, which is unfortunate (some immigrants to the US, for example, definitely felt that learning English was more important than preserving their own tongue).
Perhaps a potential idea would be for interested retired people to visit schools and teach their languages.

Best wishes,