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The way to Save Indigenous Languages

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[Clip: Levenofi welcome song] 

Tulika Bose: You’re listening to a celebration within the Levenofi village within the distant highlands of the island nation of Papua New Guinea. I used to be right here with our Scientific American video crew final 12 months to make a documentary. 

I and my co-producer Kelso Harper didn’t know what any of those phrases meant. But as the complete village—males, girls, children, grannies—swung their hips, waved branches and sang on this stunning, heartfelt refrain, we knew intuitively that we have been being welcomed. The power was infectious—we have been inspired to bop alongside. 

[Sound clip]

After all the singing, we have been invited to partake in a mumu. It’s this scrumptious feast that’s created from wrapping meats and greens and spices in banana leaves after which cooking them on this huge earth oven with steam and scorching stones. 

Finding myself right here—in an island nation that’s house to greater than 300 tribes and about 850 completely different languages—was one of the crucial outstanding experiences of my total life. Papua New Guinea additionally occurs to be essentially the most linguistically various place on earth.

But that unimaginable variety is declining. Half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the present day may very well be passed by the top of the century. And Papua New Guinea, which hosts greater than 10 p.c of the world’s languages, is now discovering its personal linguistic variety beneath risk.

After this expertise, I needed to be taught extra. Where have we misplaced languages in different elements of the world, and the way have they been forgotten? Are we attempting to convey them again? More importantly, how will we hint the roots of our collective reminiscence again to the very sounds that first made us human?

For Scientific American’s Science, Quickly, that is Tulika Bose.

[CLIP: Intro music]

Anvita Abbi: Everybody stated, “Why have you ever come? We have forgotten our language. We have no idea what you’re speaking about. We can not assist you in any respect.”

Bose: That’s Anvita Abbi. She’s this unimaginable Indian linguist who makes a speciality of Indigenous languages and has this unbelievable ardour for decoding grammatical construction.

Abbi: Lately, I had—for [the] final twenty years, I had been engaged on the languages of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These are the 550 islands within the Bay of Bengal, south of India.

She’s speaking to me in regards to the 12 months 2001, when she first arrived in Port Blair, the capital of the Andiman and Nicobar Islands, a territory of India within the Bay of Bengal. Anvita additionally wrote an article that appeared in our June 2023 situation that goes into this extra in depth. (I extremely, extremely suggest studying it and subscribing.) 

Bose: Anvita had beforehand researched greater than 80 Indian languages from 5 completely different households. But she was there to conduct a preliminary survey of Indigenous languages. At first, among the Indigenous residents—often called the Great Andamanese—balked at her request.

Abbi: So I knew that they’ve some reminiscence of the language, in fact, however they have been denying it.

Bose: But Anvita was actually persistent. And then she met somebody who would change the scope of her analysis. She known as him Nao Junior.

Abbi: I attempted to ask him a number of phrases. He stated, “Listen, madam, I’ve not spoken my language for fairly some years, however I do know my language. So I’ll have to recollect.” And that gave me an enormous clue—that I can see some ray of hope.

Bose: When I first heard Anvita’s story, I used to be surprised. I’m half Bengali myself, however I had by no means heard of the Great Andamanese, the unique Indigenous peoples who lived within the Great Andaman archipelago, or about how the British—who established a penal colony in Port Blair in 1858—wiped nearly all of them out by a mix of gunfire and illness. In the Nineteen Sixties, by which era the islands have been ruled by India, solely 19 members of the Great Andamanese folks have been left. India settled them on this tiny island known as Strait island. And then Anvita visited.

Abbi: There have been solely 9 audio system in 2001, once I reached the island.

Bose: She knew she needed to attempt to protect this language household earlier than all of it pale away. And so she set out on foot to observe it.

Abbi: It was a really, very powerful … I nonetheless keep in mind these crocodile-laden creeks that we needed to cross and lot of snakes who have been visiting us day and evening—particularly at evening, within the night. 

Bose: While on this journey, Anvita realized one thing essential.

Abbi: When I introduced my outcomes, I claimed that it seems that Great Andamanese is a separate language household. and Onge and Jarawa represent one other language household.  Before me, some linguists had traveled to the Andaman Islands, and so they had all the time thought-about Andamanese as one language household, which had three branches — Great Andamanese, Onge, and Jawara. Which I denied. That there are not any such branches — there are two unbiased language households.

Bose: I’m going to pause right here. For these of you who aren’t accustomed to historic linguistics, it’s a bit of like archaeology. But as an alternative of excavating by grime, a linguist separates layers of a language to uncover the completely different levels of evolution. And that’s what Anvita determined she was going to do.

Abbi: Subseqently, I reached the Andaman Islands with—totally outfitted with my gear for deciding, deciphering the, you already know, the unknown language in 2005.

Bose: She stayed with folks she had met, together with Nao Jr., and picked up greater than 150 Great Andamanese names for various fish species and 109 for birds.

But Anvita nonetheless couldn’t perceive the grammar and the linguistic construction of this language household. It was not like something she had ever encountered earlier than. So British officers, whereas determining that the Andamanese languages have been a bit of bit like chain hyperlinks, in that neighboring tribes might perceive one another, had additionally failed to grasp it. This fancy comparative lexicon revealed by a British navy administrator in 1887 didn’t assist, both.

Then Abbi had what she thought was an innocuous dialog with Nao Jr.

Abbi: I requested him to inform me the phrase for blood. He checked out me as if I have been an utter idiot…, abut I resisted. He stated, “Tell me the place it’s coming from.” I replied, “From nowhere,” as a result of I simply wished the phrase, which means only one phrase: blood. He obtained irritated. And he repeated his sentence. He says, “Where did it come from, inform me?” So I simply made up, and I stated, “On the finger….” The second I stated that, he instantly stated, “Oh, that will probably be known as ongtei.” And then he ratted off a number of phrases for blood on completely different elements of [the] physique. If the blood emerged from the ft or legs, it was otei. If it’s inner, it was etai—it was a clot on the pores and skin, it was ertei. Something as primary as a noun modified varieties due to its location.

Bose: Basically, Anvita realized that the complete grammatical construction of this historical language household modified relying on the zones of the physique.

Abbi: I spotted that it was altering its kind a number of instances as a result of each phrase each open-class phrase, as we all know in grammar, was prefixed by among the physique division markers.

Bose: To clarify, whereas in English we would say, “She heads the corporate” or “We face the window,” But nice Andamanese use physique elements much more and to explain the whole lot. Anvita divided the lexicon into two courses: free and sure. Words that have been free occurred alone—such because the phrase ra for pig. But phrases that have been sure, nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, all existed with relation to different objects—particularly, elements of the physique.

Abbi: And physique division markers have been seven of them.

Bose: You would possibly marvel why that is so vital. Because no different identified language household has a grammar based mostly on the human physique, Great Andamanese really constitutes its family. According to genetic proof, the Great Andamanese lived in isolation for tens of hundreds of years. Anvita realized that the grammar she decoded meant that this authentic language household got here from a time when folks conceptualized the entire world by the physique.

Abbi: The most stunning side of the language, that it’s, the entire grammar is anthropocentrism. It is—relies upon upon how folks understand the world by their physique: each exercise, each modification, and each object is seen by the physique. Only these that are pure forces, are pure components like phrases and fauna and flora, they don’t have these prefixes.

Bose: That offers us perception into early people—and a worldview the place the whole lot that occurs is linked to the whole lot else. I’m take you again to Papua New Guinea, to the well-known cultural present within the highlands. We requested some folks on the pageant if they may converse to us of their language.

Harper: What about good to fulfill you?

Villagers: Kande! 

Bose: Like the Great Andamanese, some tribes in Papua New Guinea have lived in isolation for years. But its linguistic variety remains to be beneath risk. In truth, many of the hundreds of languages which will go extinct within the subsequent century are Indigenous. Nao Jr. left this world in February 2009. In his premature dying, he took with him a treasure trove of data that may by no means be resurrected.

I’ll depart you with these phrases from Anvita’s article: “When the older era can not train the tongue to the youthful ones, a language is doomed. And with each language misplaced, we lose a wealth of data about human existence, notion, nature and survival.“

For Science, Quickly, I’m Tulika Bose.

Science Quickly is produced on my own, Tulika Bose, and Jeffrey Delviscio. This episode was edited by me, Tulika Bose, with music by Dominic Smith. Subscribe to Scientific American to learn the article by Anvita Abbi and extra in-depth Science News. 

See you subsequent time.

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