Monday, June 9, 2008

In which I am a linguist

(Fair warning: extensive discussion of Native California languages ensues; further fair warning: this is not the full story, I can't possibly tell the full story here, but I don't want anyone to think that I'm short-changing this one without knowing it, and I don't in any way claim to speak for any Native people -- this is about my experience doing this thing I'm doing.)

Once upon a time, before anyone of any sort of Indo-European descent came to what is now California, there were a lot of people living here, speaking a lot of languages. How many? Well, easily over a hundred. And I'm not talking dialects here, where people all understood each other (think the difference between California and New York Englishes), although all of the languages had their own dialects. I'm talking languages. Related languages as distinct as French and Spanish. Other, more distantly related languages (think English and Hindi). And many languages that were in no way related at all (think English and Mandarin). Some have argued that this diversity made pre-contact California the third most linguistically diverse area in the world (extra points for those who know what the first two would be).

This linguistic diversity existed for a very very long time. In some parts of what is now California, completely unrelated languages existed side-by-side for milennia, each changing at its own rate and in its own way, each with speakers who were living in peace (and often sharing all kinds of cultural ceremonies) with one another. Each of these languages was and is the product of thousands of years of cultural heritage, of a people who have a history, an ethnobotanical system, medical and religious practice, stories, jokes, songs, a way of living in and with their worlds.

Things have changed. Of those 100+ languages, fewer than fifty now have speakers. And in most cases, the languages that are lucky enough to have speakers only have a handful, and those speakers tend to be elderly. What happened? Well, I'm guessing that a lot of you know some of the history of how the indigenous people of what is now the United States were and are treated, although I'm always surprised to find how little my students know of the details (for example, almost none of them know that, until the beginning of the 1900's, the U.S. government reimbursed people's expenses if they went hunting Indians; guns, ammo, food, horses, everything; they don't teach that in fourth grade California history). What a lot of people also don't know is how long some of the more drastic government policies regarding Native Americans and their languages and cultures went on (and, in some cases, can still be said to be going on). I have worked with elders who were taken forcibly from their parents and brought to government-run boarding schools. They remember being beaten, or made to kneel on broomsticks, for being caught speaking their languages on the playground. A huge proportion of those students refused to carry their languages on, so desperately did they desire to prevent their children from experiencing such painful abuses. Seeing signs on restaurant windows that read, "No dogs or Indians allowed" is the kind of thing that goes far towards dissuading people from openly speaking a language which identifies them as an outcast.

This history of language loss is not unique to California. Of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today, linguists estimate that 90% will become endangered in the next century. And 50% of those languages will be moribund, meaning that no children are learning that language in the home; once intergenerational transmission is interrupted, there is one generation left to circumvent language loss. This kind of linguistic decimation is unprecedented in the documented history of humankind.

During the 1800s and 1900s in the U.S., anthropologists and linguists (they were once really the same thing) felt it was their duty to document these "disappearing" languages and cultures. I put the "disappearing" in quotes, because so many times Tribes who were labeled as "dead" by, say, Kroeber, were not. It's one of the dark humor jokes that I've heard many times over the past 15 years, "We're not dead yet!" It's like a bad Monty Python skit.

Twenty or so years ago, a number of groups coalesced (not just here, but world-wide) around finding ways to break the cycle of language loss, and of working with the last speakers of California's languages to help them to teach those languages to another generation of Tribal members. The same linguistic diversity that makes California such a unique area in the world also made the revitalization process much more difficult than it's been in places like New Zealand and Hawai'i (and Israel), where the states in question had one language to focus on. Here, there are at least 50. There are some amazing programs in place that have been tremendously successful, but that's a story for another day.

This week is about a different group of people. It's about those people whose languages of heritage have no speakers. Almost twelve years ago, a woman who had been involved in language restoration programs, whose own language had no speakers, asked, "What about us?" And one of my advisors, working with a group called the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, came up with an answer. That answer is the workshop I'm at. The first year we did it, it was called The Lonely Hearts Language Club, but that was deemed too depressing, and it's now called the Breath of Life Language Restoration Workshop. The goal of the week is to introduce people from California's Tribes to the insanely extensive holdings of the UC Berkeley archives (arguably the largest collection of linguistic and material artifacts drawn from Native Californians in the world), and to teach them what they need to know to interpret and use those materials in their efforts to learn and pass on their languages.

It's insanity.

And it's beautiful.

The first year of this workshop, I was a raw graduate student, serving as a mentor to a man who was working to gather materials on his language. We went to the Bancroft Library (where you can only bring in a single pencil), and the Berkeley Language Center, and the Hearst Museum. At each place, the archivists were, for the first time, able to share their archives with the descendants of the "disappeared" cultures. I don't know who or what they were expecting, but it wasn't what they got. Instead of quietly grateful folks, coming hat in hand to see the artifacts held in trust for them by an intimidating University, they got people who were simultaneously touched to the core to hear their languages spoken on crackling wax cylinder recordings, to see baskets woven by their aunties and grandmothers, and pissed as hell that they didn't grow up hearing their parents speaking their languages, that they couldn't touch the baskets with their bare hands. They were angry that these treasures were sleeping in the dark, words unspoken, regalia unworn. That these vital, living parts of their cultures were treated as artifacts, treated with mercury, untouchable and untouched for years. They cried to see them and hear them, and they were crying from joy and anger. I don't think that was at all what anyone had expected. But it was powerful, and moving, and it started something that has grown with each passing year.

If I had a penny for every time someone has asked me, "But wouldn't the world be a better place if we all just spoke one language", I'd be a rich woman. But of all the people who have asked me that question, none, not a single one, has ever intended that universal language to be anything other than the language that they grew up speaking. Never. No English speaker has ever walked up to me and said, "I think that we'd all get along better if we spoke the same language, and frankly, there's a heckuva lot of Mandarin speakers out there, so I think we'd better go with that." It's hard, for anyone who has grown up speaking a dominant world language like English, to truly understand what it would mean to never be able to speak or hear your language again. I tell my students to imagine knowing that all of the stories of their youth, with their puns and their inside jokes, could no longer be told as they had heard them. That the prayers that mean so much to them, if they practice a religion, would never be understood by anyone else. That the lullabies that their mothers sang them would be nothing more than untranslatable sounds to their children. Given that there are people who live in my part of the state who pitch fits at the thought that their child might have to take a Spanish class, or hear Spanish spoken in a classroom, due to the (imagined) threat that Spanish poses to English (and there's excellent evidence that English in the United States is in no way threatened by any language), I have no idea why anyone would think it's reasonable to assume that Native people would be any more sanguine about losing their languages.

Because it isn't.
And they're not.

Next time: What can we do about it?


EGunn said...

It's so sad to think of a language dying out. It's so interesting to learn about how another culture thinks through studying the way they speak. Maybe I'm just silly, but speaking a different language has always been a way to slip into another persona for me; the same person, but with different eyes (and words!) for the world. A world with only one language would just be boring, in my humble opinion. I'll be interested to hear what we can do about the problem in your next post. =)

Anonymous said...

What about a common, agreed second language, such as Esperanto? Esperanto has never aimed to take the place of national and tribal languages. Indeed, I think its wider use might serve to protect them. Take a look at What do you think?

Anonymous said...

I'm fascinated by the intersections between languages, how a third language grows in the middle. Sort of. Not that I know anything about it, other than my own personal experiences. (And I've been supremely lucky not to have my native language, which happens to be a dominant language, beaten out of me, literally or figuratively.)

I have to laugh (a little cynically). You mean they weren't properly grateful for the favour of a glimpse of their own 'stuff'? Stolen goods. Grrr. That's a minefield and a half you're working in there. Important work.

I'm attempting to reign in my ranting tendencies. I don't think I'm so successful.

Anonymous said...

I suppose some could argue the efficiency of one language, but it would be a narrowing of options, wouldn't it? Losing the romance of French, the accuracy of German, the incredible mouth-shaped alphabet of Korean, the variations of English, and the qualities that I don't even know of so many other languages - just seems like it would be restrict our thinking options as well as our speaking options, and heavens, we need as many thinking options as we can get right now.

Great post - I'm looking forward to the next.

Stell said...

and not just in the US, here in NZ similar practices were in force well into the 1960's, and yet when women get involved, things can change a little for the better. The Te Reo movement has made a significant difference to the number of speakers of Maori. Full immersion Maori language child care centers leading onto primary and secondary schools. Wanna know the odd thing, They used Maori language in WW2 as a code - because the Germans couldn't break it, valued for its difference and yet at the same time forced to be abandoned at home.
I'm sad almost that English is my language, I envy speakers with multiple childhood languages they have learned. I'm waiting for the next post - (is this coming from the paper?).

Anonymous said...

Hm. And in the global village, what language will/should we speak? Maybe we will all have babblefish transaltors? Much of the non-English world is trying to teach their children English as a post-secondary/commercial language. I'm a volunteer ESL teacher, and I've thought there could be a better choice than good old irregular, massively synonym-and-homonym-rich, constantly growing/word-adopting English.

To foster empathy for my students and because it is one of my ancestral languages,I am learning Welsh -- another language that was persecuted and wanted dead. Darn it's a devilish tongue. Different spelling depending on the ending sound of the preceding word. Different dialects with different spellings north and south. Sounds English doesn't use. I'm pretty amazed at the Welsh revival in Wales. It took and takes a lot of effort and will and resources to do. And it wasn't at all as endangered as the 50 languages you describe with small populations of speakers, let alone the 50 with no speakers.

Anne said...

It makes me cry to think of visiting one's heritage imprisoned in a museum. I'd thought about my younger daughter, for whom heritage is going to be a vexed question always, having to seek out music and stories and the language of her birth country ... but there are actual places she can do that right here in Massachusetts. Imagine if the only menorah I might ever see was in a museum.

Anonymous said...

Language is intrinsically wrapped up in the culture, isn't it? I hate to see any language (I so want to say languish) die. Like Latin. Once the language of the most powerful, it's now relegated to nomenclature.

At least not forgotten. I wish we could all keep the language of our forefathers - mine certainly didn't speak English! while still retaining the ability to use a ...commerce language, for lack of a better term.

And hey! You're in my neck of the woods. We made it nice and warm, just for you. ;)

Lynne said...

I, ashamedly, don't know the history of my own First People[Aboriginals] as well as you know yours. But I do know that each 'tribe' spoke a different language and that they were true languages, not just dialects. I had to explain this to DD last night while she was watching a football match. "Why does NZ have it's national anthem in Maori but we don't have ours in Aboriginal?" Answer: there's no one universal Aboriginal language.
As an ESL teacher [to adults] my students are very fearful that their children will stop speaking the first language of their parents and it's very likely, by the third generation, that they will speak only English.
I'm sad when I see a previously successful business close down, how much more so for the loss of langage and culture?
Thank you for raising this important issue.