Mind Your Language!

The last speaker of Bo, an ancient language in India in the Andaman Islands, which has now been amalgamated with ten other major languages of the Andaman Islands and is now referred to as the Great Andamanese, died in a bleak hospital in Port Blair; the Cochin Creole Portuguese language died with the demise of William Rozario in Vypeen, Kerala; and Eyak, a language spoken in the Gulf of Alaska vanished in 2008 when its last speaker, Marie Smith Jones died at the ripe old age of 89. It’s official: vernacular languages are being exterminated at an alarming pace where it is more than likely that by 2100, more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will have died out. This rate of extinction of languages by far exceeds even that of animal species.

Boa Senior, 85, the last speaker of Bo died, nearly 55,000 years of thoughts and feelings and ideas- the collective history of an entire tribe- died along with her. The Cochin Creole Portuguese was widely regarded as a bastardized version of ‘real’ languages but that does not eclipse the fact that it was still spoken by a large community in India and does not exist anymore.

Nowadays, the wiping out of colloquial histories of tribes has become a common garden event. Eviction of tenants from their lands, battles, genocide, illness, urbanization, globalization, you name it. The reasons are wide ranging and innumerable. As children are taken away from their communities and ruthlessly forced into education systems that slowly strip away traditional wisdom and replace them with new-fangled ideas of the world, so the world’s tribal languages are crumbling into decay. And with the death of tribes and the extinction of their languages, unique parts of human society that once flourished, become nothing more than memories to be cherished and venerated.

It is of vital importance to preserve these languages because saving them is much the same as saving humanity. Your language is your culture and your culture is your identity. In the cosmic scheme of things, people aren’t worth a penny. Among the teeming masses, your death and the death of people close to you will seem like nothing. Your only legacy would be the continuance of a language you speak. It will live on. But if that very language is tottering on the edge of extinction, then your entire cultural history with be worth for naught!

There are a lot of challenges that vernacular languages face and globalization, first and foremost, is one of them. Although the world is now better connected than ever and we are communicating in ways that we couldn’t even have imagined a century ago, it also poses a major threat to ancient languages in the world.

The language most commonly associated with globalization, often disparagingly, is English. The spread of this language alarms many who view it as a ‘killer’ language that is one which displaces the use of a nation’s mother tongue as it spreads.

Take case in point: In India, after independence, the British left us more than architectural marvels and bitter memories; they left us a language. A language which has rapidly undermined other Indian languages in its favour. It has been estimated than nearly 9% of Indians now speak English as their first language, which includes you and me. This number is second to only Hindi, our national language. For us, English has become the modern lingua franca, a language with which we associate ourselves because it is fashionable to do so and speaking English seems a very sophisticated and elegant practice. How did this happen? How did a dialect, spoken by a backward, semi-literate tribe in the south-eastern corner of a small island in the North Sea spread, like some malignant pandemic virus, across the globe? Should we feel guilty that our way of speaking is obliterating so many other native tongues? Is it not a more sinister kind of colonialism than that which the British practiced in our country some 60 years ago? English is overtaking every other language in the rat race to become prima donna in the Linguistic Premier League. Chances are that for a few generations most humans will be speaking English. But don’t despair and don’t exult. The Romans fondly believed it would be Latin.

Thus, what we are witnessing in the 21st century is linguicide. The complete and total annihilation of vernacular languages.  In the 20th century, power came from behind the barrel of a gun. Now it also comes from the Oxford English Dictionary.

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