Translation Culture

The Death of the Family Tongue, a Loss for Words

Endangered Languages

What is the least translated language? Alas, there are thousands if we take a look at UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. UNESCO lists 576 languages as critically endangered, and a thousand more languages as threatened and with various degrees of endangerment.

What does it mean that a language is in danger of extinction? A language dies when no more speakers keep it alive by speaking it. While some languages are widely spoken and used everyday by millions of speakers over the world, some others cease to exist because there are no more speakers left.

Examples of Endangered Languages: Ayapaneco and Abhkaz

Speakers of endangered languages may not realize that if they stop practicing their language it will disappear. For example, the pre-Columbian Mexican language Ayapaneco was about to go extinct when the only two remaining speakers decided to stop speaking to each other after a disagreement. Without practice, a language will begin to fade in the minds of its speakers, and that is why an initiative to revamp the dying language has been put in place in Mexico: the construction of a school where people could actively learn Ayapaneco.

Less fortunate is the situation of a dying language from the Caucasus, Abkhaz, which today only accounts for 200.000 speakers. The language endangerment has historical roots, as after Georgian political expansion in the region the Georgian language was imposed in schools, universities and public spaces.  After independence from Georgia, the number of Abkhaz speakers has increased a little, however the language is still not used in public places or in the mass-media, and many speakers in urban areas still speak Russian as their language of communication (as the language of “higher status”).

How Languages Die?

Languages die because they are usually displaced by a dominant one, usually the language of the majority, which grants access to better job opportunities. English and Swahili are examples of dominant languages, while Native American languages or indigenous African languages (i.e. Kiowa Apache language or Baga Pokur language) are examples of endangered languages. Often times, especial in immigrant communities, parents will decide not to teach their mother tongue to their children, as they believe they should focus on learning and mastering the language of the majority, which will give them access to better educational and job opportunities. This often comes with the loss of the personal and emotional connection with the mother tongue, the “language of love”. And also with the loss of unique knowledge and cultural values enclosed in the language.

Unique Windows on the World

Languages convey unique cultures and cultural values that will be lost once the language is lost. A language has its own “window on the world,” often making subtle distinctions that resist translation. For example, the Cherokee word for “goodbye” literally translates as “I will see you again” in English and there is no equivalent for the English “I’m sorry”. Hopi language has many more verb tenses than most European languages, and its speakers can intricately differentiate between different kinds of past, present and future. In Cree and Innu, languages spoken in parts of Canada, the first person is not the equivalent of the English “I” or “we”, but of “you”, emphasizing the individual vis-à-vis the group.

Languages carry an accumulated body of knowledge and they have different ways of expressing the same concepts while also emphasizing certain concepts more than others because they have a peculiar weight in the culture. Initiatives like the Endangered Languages Alliance have been key in documenting endangered languages and revitalizing them by recording stories, traditions and promoting awareness. It is in the interest of us to not lose unique cultural windows on the world.

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