As told in the Bible, the story of the Tower of Babel is about how God punished our ancestors for their sin of pride. Taken out of their comfort zone, they were forced to learn other languages to communicate with other groups. History tells us that our predecessors became hunter-gatherers, who lived in relatively mobile and isolated groups. As each group developed their own system of communications, languages proliferated possibly into the tens and hundreds of thousands.
Today, Babel is rewinding, as the number of the world’s languages progressively shrinks. Hunter gatherers became agricultural and, therefore, less nomadic. Industrialization and compulsory education dealt another blow to Babel, but globalization and access to better communications are the greatest threat, as they spur on the growth of dominant languages to the detriment of minority ones. According to the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) in Dallas, Texas an endangered language is “a language that is at risk of no longer being used by the younger generation.” Dedicated to assist minority communities in the preservation of endangered languages, SIL warns that the “Loss of language is almost always accompanied by social and cultural disruptions. When a language disappears, the intangible heritage of all of human society is diminished.”
A point of interest: According to SIL, as a general rule, there are more languages in the hot, wet zones of the world, like the Americas and Africa, than in the more temperate ones, like Europe.
A related site, Ethnologue: Languages of the World calculates that 1,531 (or 22%) of the 7,102 known living languages of the world are endangered. An excellent source of information about languages in general, the Ethnologue project has involved hundreds of linguists and other researchers worldwide since 1951 and is regarded as the most comprehensive source of information about the world’s languages.
Language is the expression of a culture. Our environment and social group influence local linguistic concepts. For instance, the Inuit, whose culture has been influenced by the harsh climate and stark landscapes of the Arctic tundra, have 100 words for snow. and the Sami people, from the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia have, at least, 180 words related to snow and ice, but what really distinguishes them are the 1,000 words for reindeer.
Out of curiosity, not as a political comment, a quick search turned out 50 English terms that we use for gun. Clearly, languages do evolve to suit a culture’s concepts and needs.
Why should we care about preserving endangered languages? Would a monolingual world be more efficient? Should minority languages be allowed to extinguish? A UNESCO paper published in 2004 says: “The extinction of each language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural, historical and ecological knowledge. Each language is a unique expression of the human experience of the world. Every time a language dies, we have less evidence for understanding patterns in the structure and function of human language, human prehistory, and the maintenance of the world’s diverse ecosystems. Above all speakers of these languages may experience the loss of their language as a loss of their original ethnic and cultural identity.”
Before contact with Europeans, California was more linguistically diverse than Europe. Today, California’s fifty surviving native languages are endangered. In “Racing Against Extinction – Saving Native Languages”, America Meredith writes that native languages are not dying by chance. In 1868, a Federal commission stated: Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialects should be blotted out and the English language substituted. (Atkins quoted in Crawford a). In 1886, the Federal Government outlawed native languages, a policy that continued until the 1950’s and can be credited with the extinction of more than 150 languages (Hirshfelder 84).
Sometimes it is the parents who deprive their children or their heritage language, perceiving that they will be more successful if they become fully immersed in the adopted culture. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to them, these parents are depriving their children of a coveted skill that would give them an advantage in our competitive world.
Colin Baker, Professor of Education at Bangor University in Wales, U.K., and author of fifteen books and over fifty articles on bilingualism and bilingual education, talks about the advantages of bilingualism, a notion supported by research projects conducted around the world:
“Bilingual children have more fluent, flexible and creative thinking. They can communicate more naturally and expressively, maintaining a finer texture of relationships with parents and grandparents, as well as with the local and wider communities in which they live. They gain the benefits of two sets of literatures, traditions, ideas, ways of thinking and behaving. They can act as a bridge between people of different colours, creeds and cultures. With two languages come a wider cultural experience, greater tolerance of differences and less racism. As barriers to movement between countries are taken down, the earning power of bilinguals rises. Further advantages include raised self-esteem, increased achievement, and greater proficiency with other languages.”
William J. Sutherland, Professor of Conservation Biology in the University of Cambridge compares endangered languages to endangered animals “languages are more threatened than birds or mammals. Rare languages are more likely to show evidence of decline than commoner ones. Areas with high language diversity also have high bird and mammal diversity and all three show similar relationships to area, latitude, area of forest and, for languages and birds, maximum altitude. The time of human settlement has little effect on current language diversity. Although similar factors explain the diversity of languages and biodiversity, the factors explaining extinction risk for birds and mammals (high altitude, high human densities and insularity) do not explain the numbers of endangered languages.” Professor Sutherland concludes that one life form even more endangered is human culture.
We know now that saving endangered species (plants and animals) from becoming extinct and protecting their wild places is crucial for our health and the future of our children. When species are lost, so are our options for future discoveries and breakthroughs. The same may be said about lost languages. During World War II, the military used the Navajo language because it met the requirement for an undecipherable code. Navajo has no alphabet or symbols, and is spoken only in the Navajo lands of the American Southwest.
This was not the first time that a minority language was used in this manner. During WWI both the Cherokee and Choctaw languages were used as code. The first one was Cherokee, used by American 30th Infantry Division serving alongside the British during the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.
Also in WWI, 14 Choctaw code talkers helped the American Expeditionary Forces win several key battles in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, during the final big German push of the war.
The U.S. military again turned to Native Americans in WWII, employing several Comanche men to create secret messages in the European theater. Comanche of the 4th Signal Company compiled a glossary of more than 100 terms using words or phrases in their own language. The Comanche word “turtle” became the code for tank, “pregnant airplane” for bomber, and “sewing machine” machine for machine gun. “Crazy white man” was the code for Adolf Hitler.
Other languages used by code talkers are Meskwaki (Native American) and Basque (European). However, the Navajo code talkers were the most successful. The idea of using the Navajo as a secret weapon to help win World War II originated with a civil engineer named Philip Johnston, who had grown up on the Navajo reservation with his missionary father. He was one of the few non-Navajos who spoke their language fluently. The existence of the Navajo code talkers and their role in the military remained a secret until it was declassified in 1968. All Navajo code talkers received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001.
Linguists are working at propping up Babel, creating dictionaries and documenting the culture by recording traditions and translating oral stories. Technology is also helping. For instance. Windows 8 is available in Cherokee and a Cherokee app allows users to text each other using the languages 85 letters. Whether Babel will stand or rewind depends on the success of all dedicated to its preservation.