Prometheus. What a mess of a movie. I went in memory of the original Alien, a chilling movie, one that held up to a few repeated viewing over the years. But Hollywood has probably never produced a profoundly alien species. How alien can we make a species ? China Mieville’s fascinating Embassytown has a truly alien answer.
Metaphor. A word as powerful as it is cliched. I learned firsthand of its power as I battled through a difficult decision recently. Read more »
It seems like I waded into the middle of a blog brawl between Razib Khan and his dislike of linguistic anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists. Razib not only commented on this blog but also put a pointer to my entry on the death of the Bo language .
In his entry linking to my article, Razib writes:
“… this experience only reinforces my disrespect for the ‘discourse’ which linguistic anthropologists are introducing into the public domain. There are intellectual reasons to be interested in linguistic isolates not part of the big language families (e.g., Semitic, Indo-European, Niger-Kordofanian, etc.), but no language is “70,000 years old.” The Andaman Islanders are not black-skinned elves, immortals who brought their culture in toto from the ur-heimat of Africa, genetic and cultural fossils who have been in total stasis. Cultural anthropologists presumably understand that all humans are equally ancient, derived from African ancestors, and that all languages and peoples are African (or at least 95% so within the last 100,000 years), but their communication to the public confuses the issue and presents some groups as ‘pristine.’”
I had quoted what the BBC article had reported without being overly skeptical about the details. Based on his comments, I decided to educate myself a little more. A lot of things stuck out as possible outcomes from the quote, different from the one that Razib was quoting. A primary possibility was that the BBC reporter was the culprit, misquoting (I’m not saying deliberately) the linguist in question, Dr. Anvita Abbi. Another puzzling fact was that many, but not all, news outlets quoted that the Bo language was thought to be 70,000 years old. Did they all get it wrong or were they merely picking off a common source ? But, first I wanted to find out the current consensus on when language evolved.
Language is not just a means of communication, but “a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains”, not unlike bipedalism, as the famous linguist, Steven Pinker, put it. Language is also not the same as speech, as evidenced by the presence of sign language. And for those of us who think sign language is a fairly modern invention, a signing form of English, Steven Pinker writes in his bestseller, The Language Instinct: “They [sign languages] are found wherever there is a community of deaf people, and each one is a distinct, full language, using the same kinds of grammatical machinery found worldwide in spoken languages. For example, American Sign Language, used by the deaf community in the United States, does not resemble English, or British Sign Language, but relies on agreement and gender systems in a way that is reminiscent of Navajo and Bantu.” Finally, it is important to remember that there are languages which do not have a written form.
These three points are important to understand how we can approach the question of the origin of language. First, humans had to evolve the appropriate neural circuitry for language and they had to evolve the appropriate physical circuitry for speech. But, these two could evolve separately and distinctly. Finally, non-written languages could have been existence before the first written language or written languages could have existed prior to their being set to writing. The Wikipedia quotes the interesting case of Sanskrit, where the earliest parts of Rigveda are thought to have originated around 1500 BC while the first available written version is in the 11th century A.D.
When I asked Shanthala how old did she think language was, smart as she is, she quickly honed in on the question of how could we determine the ages of purely oral languages. If oral languages leave no fossils behind and written languages came much after oral, how can we determine when language evolved ?
We can attempt to answer the question of origin only obliquely, and with an uncertainty that only gets larger as we probe at the edges of the homo lineage. Based on fossil evidence, the oldest modern homo sapiens are dated at about 200,000 years and thought to have migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. The consensus, as far as I can tell from reading the data that I could find, seems to be that human language came into existence somewhere around this period. The idea as stated by Pinker is that all branches of humanity that spread out of Africa evolved language and therefore it must have been around already when the migrations began. Debate about whether a proto language existed before then is the subject of continuing debate. The Wikipedia and especially books such as Pinker’s and Christine Kennealy’s “The First Word” are superb references for those wishing to dig deeper.
Still, is it absurd to say that a language is 70,000 years old ? Languages naturally evolve and it should at least strike one’s skeptical bone that a language could be that old. Even on the extremely remote off chance that this one didn’t, what evidence did they have to speculate its age ? I contacted Dr. Abbi to check if she had indeed said that the Bo language was that old or was the reporter misquoting her. She responded promptly:
“Yes the press has made a mistake. No language in its present form can be claimed to be that old. Linguists can reconstruct with some surety upto 10,000 years and in cases of isolated languages much longer, but certainly not beyond 15000.“
Flashback to February this year. I was on my way back to the US from India. Seating myself in the plane, the above headline scrolled past on the display in front of my seat. The article refered to a language, Bo, spoken by some tribals on India’s Andaman Islands. The languages spoken on the islands are considered to be almost 70,000 years old and are theorized to have African roots. Professor Anvita Abbi, a leading linguist is quoted as saying: “(her death was) a loss for intellectuals wanting to study more about the origins of ancient languages, because they had lost ‘a vital piece of the jigsaw’. It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times.”
The last speaker was a 85 year old woman, a survivor of the recent Tsunami that ravaged the islands. The BBC story says: “”She was often very lonely and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people. But throughout her life she had a very good sense of humour and her smile and full-throated laughter were infectious”. What might’ve gone through her mind as she lived those years knowing that with her would die the language. Only last week, I read a short story by the acclaimed Australian author, David Malouf, titled “The Only Speaker of His Tongue”. He writes:
“Now to the remotest dark, far back in each ordinary moment of our speaking, even in gossip and the rigamarole of love words and children’s games, into the lives of our fathers, to share with them the single instant of all our seeing and making, all our long history of doing and being. When I think of of my tongue being no longer alive in the mouths of men a chill goes over me that is deeper than my own death, since it is the gathered death of all my kind.”
Even before Maya was born, Shanthala had started campaigning for Maya to speak Kannada. She insisted that we speak as much Kannada as possible when we’re with Maya. I, a self-proclaimed global denizen, was a little skeptical of this goal. After all, Shanthala and I spoke to each other mostly in English, especially when we had to discuss something complicated. I thought in English. Having been raised in different linguistic lands during my childhood and adolescence, I was barely conversant in Kannada, my mother tongue. I read it with difficulty and my vocabulary was limited to the few words needed to get by on the street. Why should we insist on Maya speaking or learning Kannada when we didn’t ? I asked. She’d imitate us anyway and thereby speak mostly a mixture of Kannada and English, more English than Kannada. Duh! That is why I want us to speak Kannada more, said Shanthala.
To me, the primary purpose of language seemed to be about getting past our separateness, to communicate. Here in the US, Shanthala and I have not sought out Kannada-speaking friends, we’ve not joined groups for Kannada speakers or done anything to sustain the language part of our upbringing. It seemed impractical to insist that Maya learn a language that she’d not hear outside the house (and even that, only when her parents discussed simple subjects). We have friends in India whose kids, despite living in Bngalore and having Kannada spoken almost exclusively in the house, have switched to speaking only in English. It all seemed a losing battle to me. With so many battles to pick from, why pick a sure-fire loser ? But, as Maya grew, so did my fluency in Kannada. Maya’s first word, “Agua”, was that of a Californian, in Spanish. But, Maya came up with her own Creole, constructing sentences that are a mixture of English, Kannada and Spanish, picking the words that were easiest for her to say in each language. “Leche beka”, she says (Leche is Spanish for milk and beka is “want” in Kannada. In Kannada, “beka” is actually a question, “do you want”, for which the answer is “beku”, I want. But having only heard the questioning form of the verb, Maya uses beka to mean I want).
The end of Bo has stayed with me all this time. The main reason may have had something to do with my (then recent) experience in India. It began with my purchases of the English translations of some major local literary works. I purchased House of Kanooru by the popular and acclaimed Kuvempu. The blurb at the back said that the book documented the life of a group of people in the highlands of Coorg, a famous and distinctive part of Southern Karnataka, a life that was fast disappearing, if not already extinct. The foreword by the distinguished playwright, Girish Karnad, lent the translation some heft, I thought. The other book that I purchased was the translation of an autobiography in Gujrati by a Dalit, titled The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth: A Dalit’s Life by N. Kesharshivam. The introduction by the author was written in simple English that I felt (in my patronising way, I suppose) had the right voice and tone for such a tome. I thought that these would help fill the gaping hole in my awareness of India.
Alas! The translations were awful, to say the least. The House of Kanooru seemed transliterated rather than translated. Some of the phrasing and sentences that might have read well in Kannada read horribly in English, with awkward, anachronistic phrasing and choice of words. I can’t recall the exact phrases, but I remember something like “When the beautiful damsel saw her consort, she felt like she was cavorting in the heavens”. Somewhere within the first 20 pages, my goodwill died and I gave up on the book. No wonder, Kuvempu is virtually unknown outside the pages of Kannada (even though he’s a recipient of India’s prestigious Jnanapith Award). The autobiography was equally bad. One particularly unskilled sentence stood out: “So, at the fag end of my life, at the end of my youth, I became a Class 1 Officer”. When I packed for my return, I was happy to leave these books behind.
Over the years, as I watched writers in various languages other than English win the Nobel Prize, I wondered at the paucity of Indians in that list. Prizes for works in English such as the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer Prize have had their share of Indians recently, but we didn’t figure in the Nobel Prize (yes, I know that awards are an opinion and Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize while Kissinger did). I had wondered if poor translations were the primary reason why they haven’t become more universally known. Not all translations are this bad, I suppose. When I read Rabindranath Tagore’s Short Stories or even his famous Gitanjali, the work which won him the Nobel Prize, I was struck by how beautiful the English translation was. They had been translated by Englishmen in the early years of the past century.
Back to book purchases. I wanted to buy books in Kannada for Maya. Maya was not yet two and if the books were made of regular, adult book paper, she rent them into the waste paper basket in short order. In the US, many infant and toddler books (called board books) are made of thick cardboard making it difficult for the toddlers to damage them. In Bangalore, I could hardly find board books in Kannada. A search for even basic Kannada alphabet books was surprising in its paucity. In the US, there are a million books on the English alphabet, presenting the information in entertaining, eye-catching ways. The only toddler-proof books that I encountered in India were in English. In India, usually only the not so well healed read non-English books to their infants. They cannot afford to buy board books, which are more expensive to make, thereby forming a vicious cycle from which only the loss of the language is the winner.
This is how a language dies, I thought to myself. And was reminded of this again as the headline chronicling the extinction scrolled up the display screen in front of my seat.
There are about 6800 known languages in the world remaining (as of 1999), 96% of which are spoken by only 4% of the world’s population. 51 languages have only one speaker left and 5,000 languages have less than 100,000 speakers.
In “How Language Works” by David Crystal (a link to the chapter is here), writes that there are many reasons why a language dies, from the violence of natural calamities and genocides to the seeming benevolence of cultural assimilation. The most potent force for the past 500 years however has been cultural assimilation.
The author speaks of three stages in the death of a language by cultural assimilation. The first is the enormous pressure – economic, social and political – to speak the dominant language. Crystal writes: “‘To achieve a better quality of life’ is a commonly stated reason why someone decides to learn the dominant language”. The second stage is the ascent of bilingualism as people build a bridge between the old and the new languages, crossing back and forth between them. The final stage is when a new generation increasingly adept in the new language uses less and less of the old one, until at last the bridge to the old falls down in disrepair. Crystal writes: “This is often accompanied by a feeling of shame about using the old language, on the part of the parents as well as their children. Parents use the old language less and less to their children, or in front of their children.”
I’ve lived these stages. Growing up, my father looked down upon speaking in Kannada, listening to Kannada or Hindi songs or watching movies in the vernacular. He was not unusual in this regard. He only wanted his son to grow up with as many opportunities as possible, opportunities that shrank dramatically if I wasn’t fluent in English. And now, if Maya grows up in the US, her children, if not her, will surely know next to nothing of Kannada.
But why should we care if a language dies ? Is it important ? Surely, if the language were useful, it’d have survived.
One utilitarian argument is that each language is a repository of vast, accumulated knowledge. In a recently published article, “In Defense of Difference”, the authors, Maywa Montenegro & Terry Glavin, write:
“The way Maffi (Luisa Maffi is a linguist and anthropologist) tells the story, she was interviewing Tzeltal Mayan people waiting in line at a medical clinic in the village of Tenejapa when she met a man who had walked for hours, carrying his two-year-old daughter, who was suffering from diarrhea. It turned out that the man had only a dim memory of the “grasshopper leg herb” that was once well known as a perfectly effective diarrhea remedy in the Tzeltal ethnomedical pharmacopeia. Because he’d nearly forgotten the words for the herb, he’d lost almost any trace of the herb’s utility, or even of its existence.”
Besides loss of knowledge, there is also the loss of ways of thinking and being. Malouf writes that each language is: “a whole alternative universe, since the world as we know it is in the last resort the words through which we imagine and name it”. Imagine if you will the following scenario. As the world moves increasingly towards nuclear families, imagine that we will lose all the Asian languages. With that loss, it’s possible that we’d lose the knowledge that once, societies existed that valued the social web so much that they had specific words to express the relationship between two human beings instead of everyone being an uncle, auntie or a cousin.
Another reason, the basic premise of the article “In Defense of Difference”, is that with increasing homogeneity and a loss in diversity comes a reduction in resilience. After all, it is diversity that accounts for much beauty and resilience in the natural world. Complex systems and ecologies thrive in the presence of diversity and homogeneous systems vanish when catastrophic events occur. I haven’t encountered this idea as applied to language before and so can only speculate that it rings true because of the analogy with the natural world.
Yet another reason it seems to me has nothing to do with utility, but is similar to preservation of Van Goghs and Mona Lisa and the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are precious heirlooms. And the people who speak those languages are often interested in preserving their language, if they can be supported in their efforts. The preservation of art and culture that we take for granted come at a pretty high price, one that we discount easily when it comes to Mona Lisa, but object when it comes to something like the Bo language.
The face of the last speaker of the Bo language has stayed with me since February. I wanted to write it up, but for some reason or the other, couldn’t find the words. Then yesterday, I ran across a buzz in the online world over articles written opposing the viewpoints of “In Defense of Difference”. I learnt of the buzz and the article via the excellent blog, Neuroanthropology. In “Language Extinction Ain’t No Big Thing ?”, the author is furious at an entry by another blogger, Razib Khan, who writes the blog, The Gene Expression, hosted at the Discover science magazine. Khan wrote “Linguistic Diversity = Poverty”. In slightly longer words, rich Western intellectuals and liberals like to keep alive things like exotic languages like Bo while the people who speak those languages want to escape them because it is a cause for poverty.
In one way, I suppose Khan’s argument is not very different from what David Crystal said. But Khan makes other false arguments (some which have the malodor of social darwinism (eg: “First, we’re not talking about the extinction of English, French, or Cantonese. We’re talking about the extinction of languages with a few thousand to a dozen or so speakers”) and overall, makes a specious case according to Neuroanthropology. I haven’t read Khan’s original posts, primarily because I had been put off by his writing earlier on some other topics that now elude me. The article on Neuroanthropology is long (almost 10,000 words), but fascinating and comprehensive in its coverage of why preservation of language is important, what is being done and why arguments such as Khan’s are incorrect. I highly recommend putting aside some time to read it.
As any reader of my blog will know by now, these are weighty matters and I don’t dwell on them for the sake of intellectual stimulation. These are matters which have a bearing on the world we leave behind for our children.
A breath leaves the sentences and does not come back
yet the old still remember something that they could say
but they know now that such things are no longer believed
and the young have fewer words
many of the things the words were about
no longer exist
the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I
the children will not repeat
the phrases their parents speak
somebody has persuaded them
that it is better to say everything differently
so that they can be admired somewhere
farther and farther away
where nothing that is here is known
we have little to say to each other
we are wrong and dark
in the eyes of the new owners
the radio is incomprehensible
the day is glass
when there is a voice at the door it is foreign
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie
nobody has seen it happening
this is what the words were made
here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw – Losing A Language, W.S. Merwin
Of late, Maya has begun to insist that she wants her milk in the blue milk bottle rather than the yellow one.
“Azul”, she cries, as I reach out for the yellow milk bottle.
“But Maya, the blue bottle is dirty. It still has to be washed”, I say.
“No”, she starts to whine, “Azul”.
The process repeats for every item which we have in blue, exactly two: a blue water glass and a blue bowl. My father was thrilled with the news. Many moons ago, some fortune teller told my dad that blue was his lucky color. He immediately proceeded to paint everything he could blue, as I and my mother shuddered and thanked god that the fortune teller hadn’t picked some more easily off-putting color like pink or purple.
When Maya first began naming the world, I wondered how we would teach her the colors. Pointing at a dog or a ball or a car and naming it was easy. How could we point to the color of the thing ? Intuitively, I felt that naming colors would come after naming the things.
Scientific American carried an article last week about the acquisition of the language of color in humans. Melody Dye, the author of the article and a researcher at the Cognition, Language and Learning Lab at Stanford University, begins with an anecdote on testing a two year old for his color naming competence. She says that most two year olds have difficulty naming their colors, despite their parents’ insistence on their complete mastery (she narrates how the parents of the infants being tested had to be blindfolded because many got aggravated and started helping when their kids failed to be as stellar as they were hailed to be). Children even as old as six continue to have difficulty naming colors correctly, despite training.
Maya can confidently, almost dismissively, identify a dog or a cat or a bird, no matter what shape, color or size the animal is. She can even identify one from cartoons and caricatures. But identifying colors is a lot more difficult because identifying colors has a cultural component: not all cultures identify the colors and its hues the same way. The author quotes how in a Namibian dialect, Himba, their name for a color “zoozu” amalgamates the colors English speakers identify as black, green, blue and purple or how another name, “serandu” does the same for what we would distinguish as red, pink and purple. The linguistic erudites know well how the Russians have not a single name for the color blue but instead use two different words, one for the lighter shades of blue and one for its darker shades (but, apparently vodka is a cure for either shade).
The author of the article also points to the problem I pondered about. Children can learn the names of things quickly because they’re used within a context. Cats and dogs have usually easily distinguishable characteristics (Maya did get confused initially with some small dogs) and so can be called out easily. But colors can’t be called out that easily, at least not until the names of the objects have been mastered first.
The denouement of the article is fascinating, another insight into how language shapes thought. Here is Melody Dye:
“As it happens, English color words may be especially difficult to learn, because in English we throw in a curve ball: we like to use color words “prenominally,” meaning before nouns. So, we’ll often say things like “the red balloon,” instead of using the postnominal construction, “the balloon is red.”
When kids were trained using the postnominal construction, they mastered the color much more quickly.
“What color is the traffic light, Maya”, Shanthala asks.
“Red”, says Maya confidently.
“What does red mean”, I ask.
“Go, go, go!”, Maya shouts exultantly.