The Old Testament reading for today is the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) which could be called our Judaeo-Christian "creation story" for the evolution of language divisions in the world -- divisions which would later be overcome in the unifying experience of Divine love at Pentecost (Acts 2). But Pentecost did not mean that everyone spoke the same language -- usually the dominant language of a political and economic colonizing power such as the United States and Britain, France, Portugal, or Spain. Instead multiple languages were welcome but a common Spirit transcended all of them.
As someone who loves languages, I was reflecting on this as I read the news coming out of UNESCO's presentation of the updated Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing. According to the Atlas, unveiled on the eve of International Mother Language Day (21 February), nearly 200 languages have fewer than 10 speakers and 178 others have between 10 and 50 speakers.
The data shows that out of the 6,000 languages currently in existence, over a third are endangered. More than 200 have died out over the last three generations, 538 are critically endangered, 502 severely endangered, 632 definitely endangered and 607 unsafe.
As the last remaining speakers of a language pass away, the language itself dies. The language of Manx in the Isle of Man died out in 1974 when Ned Maddrell, the last speaker, passed away while Eyak, in Alaska, United States, met its demise last year with the death of Marie Smith Jones.
We should care about this because, according to UNESCO, " every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others."
The late Evenki poet, Alitet Nemtushkin, expressed these feelings beautifully when he said:
If I forget my native speech,
And the songs that my people sing
What use are my eyes and ears?
What use is my mouth?
If I forget the smell of the earth
And do not serve it well
What use are my hands?
Why am I living in the world?
How can I believe the foolish idea
That my language is weak and poor
If my mother’s last words
Were in Evenki?
Evenki is spoken by only some 29,000 people in Russia (Siberia), Mongolia and China (Manchuria). In Russia, it is in danger of becoming squeezed out by Russian, which is spoken by over 90% of Evenks. The Atlas lists it as being "severely endangered".
In the Americas, our school systems have unfortunately contributed substantially to the demise of languages by their insistence that indigenous students abandon their mother tongues in the classroom. Franc Camara, a computer consultant and motivational speaker from the Mexican state of Yucatán reflects on being told by his 4th grade teacher that he needed to "learn Spanish well, and forget Maya since it was worthless." ("How I learned English", National Geographic, 2007 p.13) Maya is not endangered yet but with attitudes like that, it may one day join the list.
Edna Chekelelee, a North Carolina Cherokee teacher and community leader, reflects on her school experience:
I learned your language when I was five years old.
I had to, regardless if I wanted to or not.
When I went to school we were told that we had to learn
one way or another
If I didn't learn I had to go to the bathroom
wash my mouth out with Ivory soap.
But I never did wash my Indian language out,
I still got it in my heart,
and I still carry on my Indian language.
("The Origin of the Milky Way and Other Living Stories of the Cherokee", Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2008, p.100). The Cherokee language is now in the "critically endangered" category, according to UNESCO. In Mexico and the United States, over 100 indigenous languages are on the endangered list.
We need to begin to appreciate and encourage diversity in all its forms because we lose too much by becoming homogenized into one big, white, English- or Spanish-speaking society.