Dying languages, changing climates

With the recent publication of ‘Native Speaker 2,’a few people have asked me about the inspiration behind this story of a feisty nonagenarian who is one of the last speakers of an American Indian language. It was loosely based on a talk that I heard at a linguistics conference back in 1995. When an old American Indian woman spoke in a quivering voice of her sister’s death marking the demise of their language – with no one to speak to, a language doesn’t live – there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Some 25 years later, the emotion of her words stays with me. My retelling added some humour in the characterisation of the aged woman, and I used the Wintu language group of Californian languages as the language on the verge of extinction. My gratitude to Leanne Hinton’s Flutes of Fire, a highly readable book about Californian Indian Languages.

Dying and extinct languages are undoubtedly one of the many consequences of colonialism. One of the other consequences is that countries colonised in the modern era (16th century to the present) are more vulnerable to disasters brought on by climate change. This has been highlighted these last few weeks with coverage of COP26, where indigenous peoples and their supporters had a more notable presence than at previous COPs. One native Brazilian, protesting against the destruction of rainforests, also made the point that the rich nations that colonised the southern hemisphere have caused most of the devastation to our planet and are still reaping the rewards.

endangered languages
Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Okay, I was talking about California earlier, a rich state in rich country (speaking in broad terms). America has been both colonised and coloniser. Though it could come down to the appellations, Native/Indian American and just American. Nevertheless, the cultural and linguistic side of these dual roles, coloniser and colonised, has been surreptitious and slow, taking place over decades and centuries. But on the environmental side, the spirit of both roles can be seen in the damage the US has brought upon the world, including itself, in my lifetime. America has become the bully who self harms.

On a lighter and nerdier note, according to linguists and anthropologists, the relationship between climate and language has other direct links. Differences across languages can be explained in part by different regional climates. For example, languages spoken in warm, wet and heavily wooded areas, such as in the Asian-Indian subcontinent, tend to use more vowels and fewer consonants. At the other extreme, languages used in arid, desert-like regions are more consonant heavy. One of the explanations for this has to do with the effects of dryness on the vocal cords (all vowel sounds are voiced, involving vibration of the vocal cords).

The conference I went to back in the nineties was my first and last native American language conference. As fascinating as it was, I was among the few non-indigenous people in attendance. The linguistic field of language documentation for dying languages had moved on and was starting to hand over the reins to those whose ancestors spoke the native languages. Although people were welcoming, I felt like an intruder, a descendant of contemptible European colonisers. I only wish now that my younger self realised the full extent of the harm of colonisation, damage that goes far beyond languages and cultures.

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