The colonized owe nothing, not even words, to their colonizers.
Language Matters, a new documentary by David Grubin that considers the mass extinction of small languages, is like a clear, well-formed declarative sentence. It is a thoughtful 110-minute call to heed to the global crisis of “language death,” featuring engaging interviews and pleasant aerial shots of northern Australia, Hawai’i’s Big Island, and Wales. Poet Bob Holman and his film crew follow the now-standard language documentary hero’s journey, visiting various communities of endangered language speakers, considering each community’s specific struggles as well as expounding on generalizable characteristics of language loss. Historic atrocities are solemnly recognized, while contemporary resilience and self-organization are emphasized and lauded. The film features speakers, activists, poets, scientists, and schoolchildren. The result, a linguist might say, is felicitous.
The greatest problem of well-formed sentences like these is that they tend to be a little boring. Across disciplinary fields in language research, transparently understood sentences are kept around as canonical exemplars, that, while true and good and useful, do not inspire much either in the way of generating abstract theory or more concrete passions. Luckily, Language Matters shares another trait with unequivocal declarations: the message it bears is very often necessary and worth repeating. The film is generally a success, and in parts, heartening. Its subject matter couldn’t be richer: human language and language death are, in themselves, fascinating phenomena of immense intellectual weight.
The human capacity for language is a startling outlier on the spectrum of animal communication, and contemporary societies are experiencing a mass linguistic extinction event unparalleled in recorded history. If Language Matters struggles to convey the magnitude of these stakes, the problem might not lie strictly with the film, but with the contemporary cynicism that greets each new metric of extinction with a dismissive “Yes, we know, we know.” Attention to the unthinkable magnitude of loss paradoxically inures well-intentioned bystanders to the urgency of action. But cynicism aside, the problem may be that there truly are no words, no utterance in human speech large enough to convey the tragedy and horror of what is occurring. In the last 50 years, more than two dozen language families—groups of genetically related languages—have gone dormant, with projections estimating 50-90 percent of the world’s languages disappearing from human communities by the century’s end.