Mother Tongue

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The languages of the Andaman Islands add to our linguistic diversity.

The last Bo speaker has died. Her name was Boa Sr, and she lived in the Andaman Islands. With her died one of the 10 languages belonging to a group of people who have been living in the same place—and in much the same way—for about 65,000 years. The news agencies differ as to whether they are Paleolithic or Neolithic. Anyway, they're Stone Age, and they're cool people.

They say she was lonely, not having anybody to talk to in her own language. I can imagine that, though from the videos she seems to have been a cheerful woman with an infectious laugh. Her singing is intriguing—hey, maybe that's what our ancestors sounded like, once upon a time, back before Madonna and Elvis?

The Andaman Islanders have always intrigued me. The ones that haven't gone uptown don't wear much of anything. The Jarawa, for instance, wouldn't talk to anyone until about 1997, but now they do. Their neighbours, the Sentinelese, are infamous for chasing tourists away at spearpoint—I know the feeling, usually when the Jehovah's Witnesses show up on a Saturday. Andaman Islanders are attractive people who don't need clothes to look good. They have beautiful black skin and are short and muscular. I wonder: were all our ancestors like that once? Is pale and freckled and silly-looking just the result of a bad genetic accident?

These people have skills I can only dream of. Not only do they know how to handle a bow and arrow, but they know when tsunamis are coming. Not one of them got caught in that big tidal wave in 2004. You see, they know more about wave amplitude than your average physics teacher. Like I said, they are cool people.

It's sad when a language dies. You don't know where to send the sympathy card—or how to word it. We're going to need a lot of sympathy cards in the next hundred years. Languages are dying out at the rate of 10 a year.

Of course, this is not new. In the course of human history, languages have been born and died. The rate is unprecedented, though. That has some people worried. They say that no language can survive unless at least 100,000 people speak it—and half the world's languages are spoken by 10,000 people or fewer. By the end of the century, up to 90% of the 6,000 languages spoken today may be extinct.

Most people who read this will shrug. What's the difference? We're all using the internet, anyway, and it's all one language, isn't it? If I weren't writing this in English, I wouldn't be planning to send it to the h2g2 Post, an English-only web publication, now, would I?

English is my native language. Sort of. Actually, my grandparents were dialect speakers, and all of my family members speak varieties of regional American English. They are mostly unaware of this. I once had this hilarious conversation with my uncle:

Uncle: What are you learning at college these days?
Me: Old English.
Uncle: My grandmother spoke Old English.
Me (choking): Uh, huh.
Uncle: What does sugain mean?

Sugain, of course, is Irish, and so was my great-grandmother.

I wish I had not listened to my mother. She told me I shouldn't try to tape my great-aunt talking, because someone might be offended. One morning in the 1980s, I woke up with my great-aunt's cheery mountain voice in my head. I later learned she'd died that day.

I wish I could hear my great-aunt speak again. I wish I could hear my mother speak again.

The language of our birth is the language of our hearts. Mine might be called English—and so might yours. But I bet they aren't the same at all.

I do get tired of people being insistent that their version of a language is the only right one. I get tired of the trendy, bossy attempts to make us all speak the same. Of course we need a common language—it's a global economy, and all that.

But it is wearisome to hear the same sad stories in the same sad tones, over and over, as if this old, sad world were really a village, as if there weren't enough room for us all, when we know there is, there's plenty if we'd just if it would take something away from somebody if I call it a poke and you call it a sack, or my great-grandmother thinks a rope bed is a sugain...

I mourn the loss of diversity because I treasure diversity more than sameness, always have, always will. I agree with Mr Carl Schurz (who had to learn English when he got to the US) that the best way to make sure you have liberty is to give it to someone else. And I mourn the loss of Boa Sr.

John Donne said, Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. The loss of a language is the loss of a way of thought, the loss of an image, an idea, a flexing muscle in the mental body of mankind. The death of another mother tongue calls for mourning. The bell tolls for us and we feel something.

Even if we can't remember the word for it.

Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

25.07.11 Front Page

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