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Spit & Polish 02 January 2011

02 January 2011 - 00:55 By Barry Ronge

Barry Ronge : Of the world's 6 800 or so languages, just over a third are in trouble. But are they worth saving?

I did a lot of reading over the year-end holidays and was delighted when a colleague passed on a copy of the alumni magazine of Cambridge University. I'm a Wits graduate, a Joburger born and bred, but I love finding out what academics in the grandest of the world's universities are discussing.

An article that caught my eye was written by Dr Mark Turin and the blurb above the story said: "According to Unesco, more than 2400 languages spoken today are endangered and will probably vanish by the end of the century" - an assertion that stopped me in my tracks.

If there are already 2400 languages in dire trouble, I wondered, how many healthy languages are out there, flourishing in functional communities? I went digging and found the following estimate: there are roughly 6800 languages spoken on this planet.

An even more dizzying statistic is that 96% of those languages are spoken by a mere 4% of the world's population. Ethnologues estimate that 2200 languages are spoken in Asia, 2060 in Africa, 1000 in the Americas, but only 230 in Europe.

So what does that mean? One could assume that European countries have consolidated and promoted the dominant languages, leaving the regional dialects to fend for themselves in a linguistic "survival of the fittest" contest.

The thought of all these languages reminded me of the Old Testament story about the Tower of Babel, which was built by a large tribe that had a unified religion and language.

According to Genesis, God thought this tribe was too dominant and ambitious and that they had become defiantly proud. So God and his angels "smote" the tower and "confounded their speech". It was a smart "united they stood, but divided they fell" strategy that worked perfectly, leaving a fractious rabble of dissimilar people who cling to their estimated 6800 languages and see them as an integral part of their unique identity.

By the way, don't you love that word "smote"? "Smiting" seems so much more impressive than "hitting" or even "slapping". There is so much more word-power in "smite" than in "punch" or "clout". I have never paid money to watch a boxing match or "cage wrestling", but a "smite fight" -now that would be worth a look! But I digress ...

The question is how we humans have progressed beyond the tale of the Tower of Babel, which itself probably never existed.

I think the "tower" is just an impressive, resonant metaphor for the world's multitude of languages.

If 2400 languages are slipping into oblivion, the question is: how much do we care? And can we afford to care?

Anyone who places value on words, language and communication is likely to have an instinctive impulse to save Thangmi, Kusunda and Yuchi - all of which are real languages.

But what would you do with them once they had been rescued? What are the real conservation issues here? Does the loss of a nearly extinct language supercede the loss of a nearly extinct animal or bird species?

Right now in South Africa, the media, assorted sponsors and a willing public are doing a big push to save the rhino. But if I asked you to choose between saving the rhino, whale or baby seal or saving the Thao and Guugu Yimithirr languages, which would you support?

Every year we hear about the diminishing level of literacy and vocabulary in our schools. It's often blamed on the prevalence of slang, but slang is a style accessory and most slang terms swiftly vanish into the style dustbin. When last did you hear anyone say something was "kiff"? And if you did, how old was that person?

Language fads come and go but that is quite different from the loss of a specific language, behind which is a tradition of ethnic culture and identity.

So where do we place our priority? Do we save a language that almost nobody speaks or continue to save the ozone layer? Can we stop the melting of the ice-caps? Or do we re-forest the planet and get rid of greenhouse gases? Maybe we should commit to an out-and-out, guns-blazing drug war to reduce crime. Or must we fight to end all race-based religious wars?

Now just imagine, in all this turmoil, how much funding Dr Turin is likely to attract for his effort to save the Thangmi language. I will leave you to ponder that question as I wish you a happy New Year in whichever of the 6800 languages you happen to speak.