Modern Ways to Preserve Ancient Languages

With time, every day, a particular language is dying.

“It is estimated a language is lost globally every two weeks,” says Angelina Joshua, a native from the East Arnhem Land community of Ngukurr, Northern Territory, Australia.

Joshua is the storyteller of My Grandmother’s Lingo — an interactive story which encourages viewers to learn more about an Aboriginal language. The story was launched in October, 2016 by SBS, an Australian multicultural and multilingual broadcaster. The story focuses on the extinction of the indigenous languages in Australia and it revolves around a particular one — the Marra language, spoken fluently only by three people from the community of Ngukurr.

Joshua is trying to preserve the Marra language and therefore, the culture of her community, after her grandmother’s passing. My Grandmother’s Lingo includes an interactive digital animation, educating words and sentences in Marra, while also telling the story of Joshua. In the video she shares that when she hears a word or a sentence in her indigenous language, she is imagining her grandmother still alive, telling stories in Marra.

Joshua is working at the Ngukurr Language Centre, and with the help of her family, she is fighting for the preservation of her language.

A scene from “My Grandmother’s Lingo” (GIF by the author via SBS)

“As individuals change and language is a dynamic system, new words, phrases, and expressions are added, and the already existing ones acquire new meaning. Others, just die out and sink with time,” says Dimitar Dragnev, a professor in Latin at the Bulgarian National High School for Ancient Languages and Cultures. “Grammar also modifies, although sometimes this is harder to notice. Political, cultural and demographic reasons might influence the active use of a certain language and lead to its disappearance — due to a lack of people who speak or use it.”

A quote by Yurranydjil Dhurrkay, featured in ‘My Grandmother’s Lingo’ (Illustrated by Jake Duczynski for SBS)

According to Dragnev, the Latin language is not considered as extinct. Since 4–5th century, Latin is not a native or common language. It can be defined as a dead language because it lacks the natural lingual dynamic. But it is definitely not extinct, considering that the for the past 2500 years there have been people around the world who speak, write and communicate in Latin.

“This is not the case with a lot of other languages,” says Dragnev. “There are prognoses that by the year of 2050, around 90 percent of the existing 7000 languages will disappear. The reason is cultural assimilation — common languages dominate over the active use of indigenous languages, leading to their extinction.”

This process is not necessarily irreversible. “During the Middle Ages Hebrew was considered to be a dead language and by the end of the 14th century it wasn’t a native language for anyone in the world. Due to driven actions today it is an official language in Israel,” explains Dragnev.

Another modern example of helping languages live on is Susan Hiller’s exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum, Miami. It is a multimedia installation art exhibit, called Lost and Found. It is a 30-minute video which features 23 endangered or extinct languages, spoken by fluent or native speakers. The screen is black, featuring only subtitles and a sound-wave scope, relating to the person’s tone.

One of the languages included is the N/uu language, spoken in South Africa but seriously endangered since 1973. Another is the Wichita language, a Native American language once spoken in Oklahoma. Doris McLemore was the last speaker of Wichita and passed away two weeks before the exhibition opening in October 2016. The voices of the speakers capture those extinct languages eternally.

“I wanted to facilitate direct contact, empathy, person-to-person feeling. In any case, there is always an unacknowledged uncanny aspect to sound recordings, which don’t distinguish between dead and living voices. Perhaps this reminds us that we will also become ghosts someday,” Hiller explains over an e-mail.

A still from the “Lost and Found” exhibition by Susah Hiller (image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London)

There are cases in which languages fade away with time and even the once fluent speakers forget them due to the dynamic of the surrounding generation.

“Growing up, the Welsh language was such a central part of my life and identity that forgetting it would have seemed as likely as my arm spontaneously falling off,” writes Ellie Mae O’Hagan, an editor at openDemocracy and a freelance journalist, in an personal article for The Guardian. “There is a peculiar panic that comes with forgetting a language you spoke fluently as a child,” she adds. “It’s like trying to grasp a solid object that has started to disintegrate in front of you. You’re always a step behind; never quite fast enough to reach out and stop it from crumbling.”

Daniel Phillips, a native from Cardiff who studies at the American University in Bulgaria, also has insight on the disappearance of the Welsh language.

“It has become a part of society in Wales for everything to be in English. There are still people who speak Welsh but the Welsh speaking population is declining drastically.”

When asked how the language can be preserved, Phillips suggests: “It is taught in Wales but the students aren’t obligated to study Welsh. Maybe if schools make it mandatory for Welsh, the language will be preserved.”

O’Hagan explains that each language plays a vital role in shaping a person’s character. For example, such is the case with bilingual people — differences in their personality while speaking various languages can be noticed. “Language has an intimacy and power that shapes a person existentially,” she says.

Like what you read? Give Kalina Dushkova a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.