Fading words

Language is an extension of our being. Just as we don’t have a fulfilling existence devoid of language, language too doesn’t have one without us. The more sparsely a language is used, the nearer it is to its cultural grave. If the word Cherokee instantly revs up in us the image of a sturdy SUV with off-road capabilities — instead of the distinct American Indian tribe of the southeastern US, and their dying indigenous language — who is to blame? Well, that is debatable, but fading languages, such as Cherokee, are a perennial question mark on the strength of our cultural edifice.
The words of most aboriginal languages convey not just a specific meaning, but an action and assertion, its context, and a host of connotations about the speaker and the underlying culture as well, say experts. Thus, when such a native language dies, we lose both: the language and the associated culture.
Across the world, there are some 100 languages that face imminent extinction, while 40 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing, with only a handful of speakers using them. As an extreme case, the death of Marie Smith Jones in Alaska in 2008 marked the burial of the Eyak language: she was the only speaker of Eyak!
There are some efforts globally towards nurturing endangered languages, and the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity is one such initiative. Its Endangered Languages Project aims to document dying languages, support communities engaged in protecting and revitalising their languages, and raise awareness about strategies to address threats to endangered languages. The project is managed by the British Columbia First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, and funded by US National Science Foundation and the Luce Foundation.
Languages are included in the project’s Catalogue of Endangered Languages based on parameters such as the absolute number of speakers, whether the language is being passed on to children, whether speaker numbers are in decline, whether domains of usage are receding, and the proportion of speakers relative to the overall ethnic population.
But why we humans don’t bother, and allow languages to die? The observation of linguist Mark Turin is quite an eye-opener: “A lot of people invoke social Darwinism to say ‘who cares’,” he says referring to fading languages. “We spend huge amounts of money protecting species and biodiversity, so why should it be that the one thing that makes us singularly human shouldn’t be similarly nourished and protected?” Can we dodge that question?
The scale of extinction of languages (and their embedded knowledge and culture) that we witness today is unparalleled in history, and it must prod researchers to ponder its full impact on humanity. Pregnant with seemingly endless possibilities, every language is a key to a deep understanding of native geography, flora and fauna, medicines, mathematics, philosophy, humour, insights and more.
Turning the spotlight on the Sultanate, along with Ainu in Japan and Yagan in Chile, to name just two, there are some seven languages here that are struggling for survival. The Alliance for Linguistic Diversity lists Oman’s Bathari, Harsusi, Hobyot, Jibbali, Kumzari, Luwati and Mehri among the endangered languages.
Bathari is one of the most endangered, and is spoken by a few hundred fishermen along the coast of Khuriya Muria. Harsusi is spoken in the Jiddat al Harasis area of Central Oman, and has 400-1,000 speakers, though Unesco figures touch 4,000. Hobyot is spoken on either side of the Yemen-Oman border, with fewer than 100 speakers in Oman today.
Jibbali ( Shehri) is the second largest of the Omani South Arabian languages, and is spoken in several areas of Dhofar including Salalah, and on the Khuria Muria islands. According to Dhofari blogger Susan al Shahri, over 50,000 Dhofaris use it.
Mahri is the most widely spoken of the surviving South Arabian languages, and is unique owing to its rich poetic tradition. It is spoken by more than 65,000 people in Dhofar (mainly the Bedouins). Kumzari, on the other hand, is spoken on the Musandam peninsula, and has nearly 4,000 native speakers worldwide. Finally, Luwati is used by 30,000-50,000 people living mostly in Muscat and a few in the coastal towns of Saham, Barka, Khabourah and Musannah.
Even as these ethnic groups recognise the significance of their own indigenous languages, they find it hard to sustain them owing to limited applicability. With a much more global appeal, power and reach, Arabic is the major language used by them for almost all practical purposes outside their cultural zones.
However, linguists feel technology can be a great enabler for dying languages. Social media platforms and smartphone apps have the potential to empower indigenous languages that are doomed to disappear, they say.