On Sunday, as part of the AFI Dallas Film Festival I saw a fabulous new documentary called The Linguists(warning, will immediately start playing audio). The IMDB entry is sparse, but Reuters has an excellent review. They mention the Indiana Jones spirit, which I immediately thought of as I watched two professors with large backpacks trekking about remote corners of the globe, remote Siberia, remote India, deep in the mountains of Bolivia, and a quick jaunt in Arizona. It truly seems as if these resourceful linguists are running around the world saving dying peoples, and if not saving the people, then saving their language, their legacy.
(Edit: warning Some spoilers follow)
The opening line is from one of the linguists, David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, says, "Around the age of 8 or 9, I discovered I had a somewhat irrational interest in the world's languages". From this point on, I knew I had made the right decision in coming to see this film. It focuses on highlighting 3 languages that David and Greg researched, intertwined with a language tale right in our backyard.
The first quest we observe is in Siberia, and not the icy prison of Solzhenitsyn, it is a lush and green land. They are researching the language Chulym, which was last researched during the 70s, so it has been left untouched for 3 decades, while the speakers were getting old and dying. With the Russians heavily frowning on local languages, the tongue itself was going with them. A local mayor refers to the Chulym, "After two drinks, they're drunk", apparently a harsh insult in Russia. The Linguists explore the stigma of being a speaker of a small, tribal language, and with a little luck, they're able to find speakers.
In Arizona, the last speaker of Chemehuevi is a middle aged man. He was raised by his grandmother who only spoke the Native American language. Had he been raised by his parents, there would be no surviving speakers. Still, he doesn't remember all the words, but uses recorded tapes from his grandmother to keep up, and to teach his children. With increasing globalization and modernization, world culture is becoming more homogeneous, and only through passing on the traditions of the parent to the child can they retain some sense of their ancestry.
In India, they seek to document the Sora language. The Indian education system frowns on tribal languages. Of course, reading Wikipedia, we see that there are 22 official languages in India, out of a total of something like 419, see the article. Of those, 122 have more than 10,000 speakers, meaning that almost 300 are near disaster. The movie doesn't mention the tsunami from a few years ago, but one can picture a natural disaster wiping out, in addition to human life, entire languages, cultures, and traditions going back hundreds or thousands of years.
From an interesting anthropological look at tribal culture, music, and dance, we get into some real linguistics. A revelation occurs, when they discover that in Sora, 13 is 12 + 1, a base 12 system! But wait, it gets better. When they get to 20, they discover 20 is its own word, and 21 is "twenty one". 32 is "thirty twelve", and 93 is the fabulous "four twenty twelve one". A fabulous quote was that as part of their research into unknown languages, they are finding "different ways of knowing math before they vanish". This is a key point, because western education tends not to breed diversity, and through diversity comes strength. In the next 100 years, the diversity of this world will all but vanish, and we need to fight to preserve it now.
Finally, we visit Bolivia, high up in the mountains, near Lake Titicaca. They search for a speaker of Kallawaya, a language used by medicine men. It is thought that in the lexicon of this language is the combined healing knowledge of generations. They do find a medicine men, who leads them in some ceremonies. His form of medicine is religious ceremony, bordering on animism, and there are probably less than 100 speakers/practitioners of it. Still, if he has knowledge of plants, known through language, then scientists could isolate chemical compounds with previously unknown medical effects. It would truly be a travesty for this language to disappear from the earth.
In the end, we are given a bit of hope, and a bit of sadness. Using the knowledge they've gained from Chulym speakers, many hard of hearing and quite old, they are able to put together a story book, using pictures drawn by the speaker's grandchildren. It is the first Chulym storybook in the history of the language, as the Linguists say, truly a "community effort", and giving the book to the villagers. The Linguists are very clear, they attempt to pay back these people for the gifts of their language that they give us so freely. Sadly, when the documentary was being filmed there were 7 Chulym speakers, and by the time it was finished, 2 had died. As they mention, there are 7,000 languages in the world, and one goes extinct every 2 weeks. Without these Linguists, and their heroic efforts, many will be lost forever, gone into the darkness, taking a piece of humanity with them.