Welcome to the grand finale for November 2007. For today’s matinee, let’s journey down to Its Beach for some autumn sunset action. This dusk buster was from the evening of November 19th. There was lots of pelican action that afternoon and as I clicked away with my zoom I could see them soaring way off in the distance. The colors of the clouds were really unusual that night and made a nice backdrop for my favorite prehistoric looking birds. Just another beautiful evening along the Pacific Rim.
Speaking of the magic of the coastline, do you ever think about the languages of the world? Actually, I don’t, except for the language of love. But according to linguists (and you know they wouldn’t lie), of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks. Or at about the same rate as Republicans are leaving office in disgrace.
Some endangered languages vanish in a second, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television. Maybe that’s why it’s called the boob tube.
New research has identified five regions in the world where languages are disappearing most rapidly. These “hot spots” are northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, an area that includes Oklahoma and the southwestern United States and small pocket of Mets fans living near Shea Stadium. All of the areas are occupied by aboriginal people speaking diverse languages, but in decreasing numbers.
According to K. David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, more than half of the languages have no written forms and are “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” When the disappear, they leave behind no dictionary, no text, nor record of accumulated history and history of a vanished culture. Not even a post-it, cliff note or a tiny thesaurus.
In Australia, nearly all of the 231 spoken aboriginal languages are endangered. Researchers from the National Geographic Society have come upon such tiny language communities as the three known speakers of Magati Ke in the Northern Territory and the three Yawuru speakers in Western Australia. Interestingly, none of these six individuals had ever heard of Crocodile Dundee and had no interest in putting a shrimp on the barbee.
Many of the 113 languages spoken in the Andes Mountains and Amazon basin are poorly known and are rapidly giving way to Spanish, Portuguese and Yiddish. For example, a group known as the Kallawaya use Spanish in daily life, but also have their own secret tongue, used mainly for preserving knowledge of medicinal plants, some of which were previously unknown to science. Myself, I prefer secret pastrami, corn beef, or a very lean roast beef.
The dominance of English threatens the survival of 54 indigenous languages of the Northwest Pacific plateau of North America, a region including British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. There remains only one person who speaks Siletz Dee-ni, the last of many languages once spoken on a reservation in Oregon. And amazingly, they found this individual wandering the streets and muttering to himself about the knee injury that has sidelined the Portland’s Greg Oden, the number one overall pick in the NBA draft, for the entire season.
Forty American Indian languages are still spoken in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, many of them originally used by indigenous tribes and others introduced by Eastern tribes that were forced to resettle on reservations. Several of the languages once spoken are now as dead as the Miami Dolphins playoff hopes. These studies were based on field research and data analysis from the Living Tongues Institute, an organization for the documentation, revitalization and maintenance of languages at risk. Like jive.
So that’s it for November. Coming up on Monday we’ll venture to a protected grove at Natural Bridges and check out some clustering than doesn’t involve almonds. And if you’re looking for some excitement on Sunday, I’ll be over at the Long Marine Lab Jingle Shells Arts & Crafts Festival from noon to 5:30. Come by, say hello and check some incredible marine life from the central coast. So enjoy the pelicans, have a great sports weekend and we’ll catch you in December.