The Linguists

I thought I would share with you the most amazing documentary I watched today, called ‘The Linguistics’. Two linguists travel to different parts of the globe to record languages which are ‘dying’ due to the spread of major global languages. Their aim is to record and document minority languages before they become extinct in our life time. They travel to three interesting places, phonetically transcribing (like pros!) and recording the last speakers of these languages in their community. These are Chulym in Siberia, Sora in Orissa, India, and Kallawaya in Bolivia. Crazy and beautiful places!

The incredible thing is when they come across interesting forms in language. One amazing finding was with the Sora whose numbering system has 20 and 12 base. The English number system is 10 base, and you can find a 20 base number system in French, but 12 base is much rarer. You get combinations therefore such as, they say: twelve one = thirteen, and twenty twelve two = thirty four. Amazing right! It’s just a cultural choice.

Greg Anderson discussing number systems in Orrissa, India.

This important work enlightens us on the way other people from different cultures think and understand the world. Sometimes it’s really hard to understand more of somebody else’s world without knowing more of their language. Something’s just aren’t translatable. I found a Q & A session on Youtube with one of the linguists David Harrison who says,

“Anybody who’s bilingual understands the paradox of translation, and that stuff is lost. It has to do with the way knowledge is structured in languages, what I call ‘information packaging’. It’s the way that information is arranged, not just linearly, but into hierarchies, into conceptual framework.”

He then goes on to explain these classification systems, where you can express any type of concept in language, but the fact is that not all languages give you a neat concept to express in a single word, which would describe all of the nuances that you might want to cover.

This is also true to items that people might use in one culture, and therefore express with a word. But an English speaker may never have seen that same item; therefore we are yet to name it in our language. It’s the same how the Inuit’s can add many subtle suffixes to their words to express fine detail, like describing different types of snow. Or if someone has never been to Australia, and you said the word ‘bushfire’, would they conjure the same, correct and precise thought as us? Probably not. (Look into the Saphir-Worf hypothesis if this interests you.)

David Harrison has also done some work in Australia on Aboriginal languages. Interesting stuff… on the top of my book list.

What do you think it would feel like to be the last speaker of your first language? Even, how do you feel about language ‘dying out’ in your own family? This happens in many immigrant families. It’s happening in my family. I’m learning and studying Italian, but I don’t know my grandparents dialect. To me, the most important message is that as long as I can communicate, and as long as the spoken language is alive in a community of language speakers, we just have to let language continue to evolve as it does.


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