Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Vanishing voices = vanishing knowledge

One of the notable efforts in bringing the world's attention to dying languages is National Geographic's Vanishing Voices Project. What linguists are trying to do in this project is to highlight what the world would be missing if those languages are gone; for language is not merely sounds that make sense to a certain community. Instead, they could carry deep knowledge that can unlock scientific secrets. Interesting questions similar to the ones raised in the Vanishing Voices article comes to ones mind when thinking about the consequences of losing languages at this rapid pace:

Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won’t survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?” (Rymer,NationalGeographic Magazine, July 2012).

Take the Jabbali language in the southern part of Oman for example. The wide plant vocabulary it carries only reflect its speakers wide knowledge of plants and their uses. If transferred wisely, this knowledge could prove useful in many ways. Plants were once part of the Jabbalis daily lifestyle; I'm not sure if this is still practised today but I do believe that the knowledge they've acquired from this contact remains to an extent and could be used before it 'vanishes'. Similarly, the speakers of Kamzari (also spelled 'Kumzari') in the northern part of Oman might have a lot to tell us about living by the sea.

This month's issue of National Geographic Magazine discusses three endangered languages; Tuvan, Aka, and Seri in Russia, India and Mexio, respectively. Tuvan was apparently saved from extinction and is no longer threatened. If this means anything, then it certainly means that efforts to save languages can be fruitful. Yet if nothing is done about 'vanishing voices' then I can't help but quote Harrison's last words in the following clip, “The transmission of knowledge [will be] disrupted”.