I wonder how many languages will die in the months to come, during the year which the UN has designated as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”. Most of us will never know of some of them. Perhaps we’ll hear of them later, for the first and last time, in a news item announcing the loss. Or a stray phrase or word will drift to us, Romanised. We won’t know how to pronounce it but will treat it like a window into a perished world (like this: itek eoirapnene; later, I’ll tell you what I’m told it means). And every language, every dialect really, is a world of its own – with a worldview that is intimately tied to the words that describe the speaker’s experience of that world. February 21, observed annually as International Mother Language Day, is a fine time to reflect on this.
Languages seldom die organically, even if it seems as though the demise of the last speakers is the reason. The erasure begins far earlier. Centuries ago, with Western colonisation. In more recent decades, with globalisation and capitalism and the ways in which the hungry mainstream always pushes the so-called fringe further and further beyond the margins. And still, and ongoing, with all kinds of cultural impositions, some so subtle they are unfelt except once their changes have become entrenched. According to the UN, 43% of the approximately 6000 living languages in the world are endangered, and a language disappears every two weeks, “taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage”.
“Untranslatable” words are among the most popular cerebral memes, and geeks everyone have become familiar with the poetic mangata (Swedish: the path-like reflection of the moon on the water), the now ubiquitous hygge (Danish: a cosy contentment) and even the gorgeous mamihlapinatapei (Yaghan: an unspoken moment between two people, neither of whom may act on what’s between them). But the words are not necessarily untranslatable, as their descriptions prove. Only their brevity doesn’t transfer. The listicles thus allude to something else, an intangible interplay of knowledge and loss. Perhaps it comes from the awareness that a thing exists but can only be experienced out of context, for the world it arises from isn’t a world one has the vocabulary to imagine.
Literally. This is why the widely-held idea that Inuits have one hundred words for snow persists, when the reality is that their languages are structured polysynthetically, and what we think of as an English sentence may be one long word. To satirise this, someone named Phil James made a convincing list, with some red herrings – “warintla: snow used to make Eskimo daiquiris” and “depptla: a small snowball, preserved in Lucite, that had been handled by Johnny Depp” should have tipped anyone off. Still, these un-dictionary definitions even find themselves onto baby name websites.
And finally, itek eoirapnene. These are Ainu words, meaning “You must not forget this story”. The Ainus have an ancient Japanese culture I only learnt of while reading on vanishing languages and the worlds they sustain. This is as far into their language as I may ever go. But that message is worth carrying forward.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.