Languages too can grow old and fade away. The first step towards preserving them is to actually speak them.
This morning I opened my inbox to find a string of emails from family in response to a funny email someone had circulated. The joke - one involving a conversation with a moronic doctor and a baffled patient worried about his diet – was, however, not the subject of the conversation. It was the last line of the email that caught everyone's attention.
'Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you'
What followed was a discussion about how everyone seems to only be speaking English at home. This is no new complaint against the generation of English speakers but what was new, however, was that fingers were pointed at the older generation too - parents, aunts and uncles were all pulled up for speaking in English at home and diluting the pool.
A cousin said her two sons could only hang out with each other during their trips back home, because they didn't speak the local language, thus missing out on the local dynamics.
Conveniently, the first email began with 'Happy New Year, everybody!’ This could only mean one thing: resolutions. And since the only way to save a language is to use it for it’s most primary purpose, it was jointly decided that English would now be banned in the house - speak in Malayalam or don't speak at all.
Someone else said she tried to convince her husband and daughter to talk in the mother-tongue, only to be met with claims about how now that 'they think in English, their brain works only in English and hence they can speak only in English'
"Who can beat that?" she asked, and rightly so.
Thinking in a language is the first step towards fluency. Evolutionary scientists and linguists have asked a number of questions about the interaction between thought and language. Does language facilitate thought or does speech or does thinking help us talk? Can intellectual thought exist without lexicon and grammar? Is talking just thinking aloud? The answers are not as obvious as they seems.
Evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould suggests that language is an exaptation of thought - language evolved for thinking, for giving human being a way to represent the world. So it is inevitable that as the world around us changes, as we find new ways to represent them and our vocabulary gets annexed with new words, new idioms and metaphors arise as old ones become irrelevant. Language is hence in a constant state of change. Watch a movie from the Twenties and you'll see that the same language used to be spoken very differently from the way we would speak it now. Languages come into being from a simple pidgin or creole, they grow bigger into a complete language and in time risks becoming obsolete and fading away.
In early February 2010, a woman named Boa Senior, died at the age of 85. She was born circa. 1925 and with her death the Andamanese Bo language, one of the worlds oldest languages was wiped clean off the slate of human memory; she was its last remaining speaker. Boa Senior was part of a Great Andamanese tribe and went thirty years as being the only speaker of her mother tongue. As the rest of her tribe stopped conversing in their ancient tongue, Bo Senior had to learn the Andamanese version of Hindi so that she could communicate with them.
I remember feeling a displaced sense of remorse when I read about her death. Imagine not being able to converse in the language you grew up speaking? Imagine having to pick up a whole new language at the age of 85. According National Geographic, one language dies every fourteen days and in a hundred years nearly half of the over 7000 languages spoken will most likely disappear. As languages like English, Mandarin, Russian or Spanish become more popular, parents will encourage their children to abandon their natives tongues so they can ‘keep up’ with the rest of the world. In every home in our globalised, increasingly homogenised world, indigenous languages will battle with dominant languages, most likely lose, and with them take away a unique way of describing the world, a culture of thought and reference, a pool of indigenous language.
Suddenly, the government making Hindi and regional languages mandatory in school didn't seem strange at all and resolving to study one's mother tongue and banning English at home seemed like the thing to do. The best thing way to preserve any sort of knowledge, before resorting to documentation, is to teach it to your children and this applies more to language than anything else. Kids below the age of four can pick up six languages simultaneously so don’t worry about stressing them out.
They may also be more willing to change than adults who have become too comfortable in their adopted tongue. For instance my cousin’s two sons, aged 9 and 12, were more receptive to the resolution. “One of them even admitted that he can understand Malayalam or Tamil a bit here and there but preferring not to admit that,” she says. "Now that's the hardest part."
(Zeenab Aneez writes on people,popular culture and the dots that connect them. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)