Wordly Treasures

imp kerr, life’s great in miami, 2002
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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.

Poetic accounts by language speakers describing the subtlety of their particular idiom, its expressive power and richness, are plenty. We often hear accounts of one language’s reliance on poetic metaphors to convey quotidian meanings, like Farsi or Urdu, or of another language’s lexicon delightfully full of sublime, “untranslatable” entries, like German or Japanese. We also have the scientific terms that describe languages as “head-first,” “polysynthetic,” “tonal,” or “analytic.” Linguists have a surfeit of such taxonomic artifacts, useful for classifying and describing the tremendous diversity of human language. Indeed, until around the mid 20th century, linguists’ primary occupation was similar to that of the butterfly collector: research was organized around identifying languages, categorizing them through comparative historical methods, and describing their properties through “discovery procedures” which were mechanistically applied to a sample from the language to derive a standardized characterization.

Holman, a poet and co-founder of the Endangered Language Alliance, delights in sharing such specimens with the audience. The film is sprinkled with trivia about metaphors in Hawaiian, English-Welsh code switching, and Aboriginal Australian place names. Linguists translate formal descriptions into layman’s terms. Holman tries to rap in Welsh, and gets a course in Celtic phonology. The human conceptual and sound inventory is vast and fascinating, and it is easy to dream of a life dedicated to experiencing every sound and idea extant in human societies. Imagine the lateral clicks, the bilabial approximants, the ergative isolates, the multiplicity of tones! But imagine your job is to describe every species of butterfly as they go extinct. Eventually beauty and precision fail the poet and the scientist. The color fades, and words fall short. When odes become obituaries and catalogues become morgues, it might seem best to abandon the enterprise and instead keep silent.

Language Matters is not insensitive to this—its locales are all sites of violent occupation by colonial capitalist powers, and this is multiply and explicitly acknowledged by both Holman and his interlocutors. Yes, we know very well that universal suffrage for Aboriginal Australians did not come until the 1960s, and that until 1967, Aborigines were not even classified as human under the Anglo settlers’ national constitution. Yes, we know very well that Hawai’i, like the rest of the United States, was forcibly occupied to guarantee European commercial interests in the region, in this case, Anglo-controlled sugar cane plantations. In making open note of this, the film participates in an emerging practice by politically progressive settler descendants who would like to position themselves as allies to the indigene they have displaced: Anglo and Irish Australians and New Zealanders who often begin public addresses by thanking the area’s traditional landholders, Anglo and French Canadians who speak of their hometowns as “so-called Montreal” or “so-called Toronto.” While this tactic can be useful in raising awareness of the ongoing character of colonial occupation, violence, and dispossession, it must be placed in the context of an anticolonial project that exceeds the limits of works like Language Matters.

One of the film’s common refrains, and one which it shares with much of language preservation discourse, is the characterization of small and endangered languages as “treasures for the whole of humanity.” And it’s true, the immense wealth of scientific, taxonomic, historic, and poetic information encoded, preserved, or expressed through the world’s various languages is widely documented. Linguist K. David Harrison, star of his own language documentary, The Linguists, gives an expert survey of the issue in his book When Languages Die. Harrison explores the human science-making capacity through the study of natural, everyday speech in small language communities, explaining how the “disciplines” of meteorology, mathematics, and biology exist in the first instance through data robustly encoded in human signifying systems. Motion verbs can describe topology and river systems, names for birds or seasons describe animal behavior and life cycles, and counting systems reveal non-trivial issues in the philosophy of mind and number theory.

The interlocutors in Language Matters discuss this each in their own contexts: Hawaiian, an isolating, phonologically straightforward language, has a lexicon well-suited to the archipelago’s massive biological diversity. Aboriginal communities maintain expansive and detailed genealogical knowledge, supporting their distinctive social structures through strategic multilingualism in the face of centuries of Anglophone encroachment. It is nearly impossible to overstate the wealth of knowledge that is being erased daily and yearly by the insidious spread of language accretion and homogenization, which follows in the wake of outright massacres and practices now recognized as acts of genocide, such as the concentration camps for children built and operated by US and Australian colonial authorities and Christian groups during the 20th century. Discussing the current state of affairs, linguist Nick Evans recounts attending funeral after funeral, each honoring the last speaker of this or that language. He enumerates some of the colonizers’ atrocities—rape, murder, humiliation, exerted with greatest success over children—and compares the violence done to colonized people’s intellectual cultures as tantamount to “bombing the Louvre,” a particularly apt example, as many famous European museums are little more than lavish storehouses of these same cultures’ stolen treasures.

It is here, in the very forthrightness of settler descendants’ efforts to seize responsibility and take effective action to collaborate with the colonized, that a major critical (if pragmatically forgivable) omission of films like Language Matters becomes apparent. Certainly, growing awareness of linguistic and cultural rights issues is a worthwhile enterprise, as it overcomes the triumphalist cynicism that pervades advanced capitalist societies and hegemonic consumer culture. The loss of beauty and knowledge from the world appears as a compelling argument for language preservation and revitalization, and it is inspiring and heartening to cheer on the often small but never insignificant victories of small language communities to defend their cultural heritage. Organizations like the Endangered Language Alliance do much-needed work in preservation and documentation, for which they depend upon external funding and consciousness raising efforts such as this film,

Disclosure: I know Bob Holman and linguists involved with the Endangered Language Alliance, and have worked on ELA projects in the past.
so it is only natural to speak in terms of universal values and enduring hope for global human community. In the film and elsewhere, Holman and his associates do not shy from the data. As ELA linguists Daniel Kaufman and Ross Perlin note, capitalism and colonialism are driving these extinction events, and indigenous political and economic sovereignty, the right to self-determination, is a necessary prerequisite to language and cultural survival—these are not solely abstract questions of syntax and lexicon, but of control over land, resources, guns. Even simple declarative statements such as these bear repeating.

These languages are not the world’s, these treasures are “theirs,” not “ours.” Languages belong to their speakers, as do the intellectual traditions and cultural complexes they encode and preserve. Support, or even enthusiastic commitment to language preservation, if predicated solely on values of humanism and universality, replicates the colonizing, imperial moves that continue to push these communities to marginalization, subalterity, and death. Australians, Hawaiians, and the Welsh do not owe their cultures and languages to anyone but themselves, and the rights of a culture are not contingent on certain of their artifacts’ circulation in depoliticized market of ideas or some similar multiculturalist fantasy. The turn toward native language reclamation and revitalization in Wales, Hawai’i, or Austrailia does not hinge on the pleasures of the Anglophone imagination, but represent the application, in that rarefied space of organic virtuality where humans’ signifying behavior occurs, of a complex of strategies devised by indigenous communities for effective decolonization and national liberation.

Besides their exonyms—names applied by neighbors and colonizers—many indigenous languages have an internal name, which speakers use to refer to their tongue in private. Often, this name translates to simply “true speech,” or “human speech.” Even in regions rich in linguistic diversity, even when they themselves are fluent polyglots, people will continue to say, each in their own language, “We, it is we who are special,” if only to hear themselves say it.

Upholding indigenous communities’ rights to linguistic self-determination necessarily entails upholding the right to self-determination in all aspects of social, political and economic life, however much their exercise might disturb, baffle, or otherwise ignore Western sensibilities. The colonized owe nothing, not even words, to their colonizers. In a humorous, telling moment near the film’s conclusion, Bob Holman asks Lolena Nicholas, one of the first teachers in the first punana leo, Hawaiian language immersion schools founded in the 1980s, if she thinks about the possibility of Hawaiian dying out. “There is a chance it might be,” he insists. Nicholas replies curtly, “‘A‘ole paha,” “maybe not.” Holman takes it in stride, and Nicholas’s interpreter makes a joke, at which Nicholas, in a casual act of ethnographic refusal, does not smile.

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