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Mothering Mother Tongues
February 19, 2014 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Language - Comments Off on Mothering Mother Tongues

What do you get someone for International Mother Language Day? It’s this Friday, the 21st.

For Mother’s Day, I used to go around and pick neighborhood flowers  for my Mom. But I don’t think that’s appropriate for International Mother Language Day, (or really appropriate for Mother’s Day either, as my Mom pointed out at the time).

But there is a connection: Mother tongues are like mothers because everyone loves them. Joshua Fishman says, “The mother tongue is itself an aspect of the soul, a part of the soul, if not the soul made manifest.”  Go tell that to second-language speakers if you want to make them feel bad. (Try it. It’s almost as much fun as picking the neighbor’s flowers.)

International Mother Language Day was launched by UNESCO in 1999 to promote awareness of the value of linguistic and cultural diversity. So, I guess really the best way to celebrate the holiday is to talk about mother tongues, or in them. So on February 21, I promise to basically speak English all day long. Of course, that’s easy to do when it’s English, since it’s the language I get paid in. But not every mother language has it that easy. UNESCO claims 2500 or so mother tongues in trouble.  Some are in more trouble than others, so UNESCO has  provided classification for the six stages of language death, denial not included.

A widely spoken language like English, for example, is classified as “safe,” because it ain’t going nowhere. English is here to stay, at least until the next asteroid strike.

It’s a different story for “vulnerable” languages. Those are the languages without the official or social status that languages require in order to keep people talking that tongue.  Safe languages become vulnerable when their use becomes restricted to particular domains, say with family members only or just at church or temple. Once language use becomes domain-specific, the language becomes vulnerable to further decline. These “endangered” languages fall into three categories:

Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.

Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.

Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.

Extinction: Kaput, Finito, finished, or if the mother language is a lucky one, restoration. But that’s a different post.

UNESCO says, “With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.”

When I first read that, it made me feel bad that I was missing out on important ancestral knowledge because my native language, English, is only indigenous to England and I live the US, where it is definitely not an indigenous language. Actually, I’m not sure if English is considered an indigenous language in England either, so I guess I’m not missing out on anything, since English appears to be lacking important ancestral knowledge in UNESCO’s  Rousseauian/racist view.

Which reminds me of trees falling down in the woods.

In his recent book, The World Until Yesterday, redoubtable birdwatcher and anthropologist Jared Diamond, reports on the extreme caution used by New Guinea Highlanders around dead trees and branches. Diamond reads this is a prime example of the indigenous wisdom/paranoia required for those who live rough in non-industrial societies. But avoiding deadfall and widow-makers (as dead tree branches are called in English) is an ancient Western tradition as well, as any Tenderfoot Boy Scout learns way before he earns his first merit badge. Diamond just never had the chance to learn it in his own culture but instead found that essential wisdom for woodsman half a world away. I mention trees only because my dad got clocked with a dead branch once, after years of telling me and my brother to be careful about those branches. So we thought it was funny, especially since there was no permanent injury.

Not exactly a concluding paragraph, but I’m not sure where to go with this. Wait, got it:

Language diversity is good for the translation business, so we encourage and support it. Our new policy: ERveryone should speak only their mother tongue. We’ll handle the rest.

Happy International  Mother Language Day to all.

Graphic is from an interesting interactive map by Unesco of all endangered languages here.

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