National Post, November 27, 2009
Chris Knight, Canwest News Service
One of the saddest things I ever heard on radio was a wax-cylinder recording of a woman singing a lullaby.
Her name was Santu, and when the recording was made in 1910, she was 75. She had learned the song from her father, and though she knew the words, she had no idea what they meant. The language of the song was Beothuk, spoken by the natives of Newfoundland, who died out in 1829.
When the haunting melody was broadcast on a September morning in 2000, no one on Earth could understand it. No one ever will.
There is a similar sense of sadness, but also humour, and even hope, in The Linguists, the DVD of which can be purchased from thelinguists.com. The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, tells the tale of two scientists, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, who travel the world in search of endangered languages.
Their aim is to document, learn from and preserve tongues for which there may be no more than a handful of speakers. They estimate there are 7,000 languages on Earth, but that, on average, one dies out every two weeks.
Between then, Harrison and Anderson speak 25 languages, which is useful in their globe-trotting work. Diplomacy and caution also serve them well.
Endangered languages are often found in areas that carry the legacy of colonialism, including poverty, insurgency and danger, especially for outsiders.
In India, the two visit the Sora, who number some 300,000 speakers. This might sound like a lot, but in a nation of a billion souls, it amounts to a tiny fraction, equivalent to 7,500 people in Canada. Harrison wants to stay overnight to soak up the culture. "It's my duty as an ethnographer," he says gravely. Anderson, who has a wife and children back in the States, would rather take notes, make recordings and return to his hotel.
Sometimes the speakers of a minority language are shamed into silence. When the scientists visit an off-the-map Siberian village where a handful of people still speak a language called Chulym, they find the Russian-speaking mayor has few kind words to say about this ethnic group.
They track down two speakers who are almost deaf, then another who appears daft, before their 51-year-old driver reveals that he, too, speaks Chulym.
He was one of just nine remaining speakers, half of whom died of old age by the time the film was finished.
Beyond the matter of pride in one's culture, there is much to be learned from other languages, including different ways of describing the world. In Chulym, for instance, the phrase "I went out moose hunting" is handled by the verb "Aalychtypiskem." (And I thought Germans had cornered the market of packing vast meaning into a single word.) Kallawaya, another endangered tongue, has fewer than 100 speakers in Bolivia, but contains knowledge of plants and herbal medicines, some of them unknown to Western science.
A Sora speaker reveals that his language uses a combination of base-12 and base-20 for counting. (Most use base-10, probably because that's how many fingers we have.) "Ninety-three" in Sora, for instance, is the equivalent of "four-20-12-one."
Says Harrison: "We think it's one of the most complicated numbers that we might ever see in the languages of the world. We should try to figure out what these different ways of knowing math are, before they all get flattened out and vanish."
Sometimes they arrive too late. In Arizona, Johnny Hill Jr. is the last known speaker of Chemehuevi. "I speak it to myself because there's nobody to talk to," he says. He also listens to 40-year-old tapes of now-dead members of his tribe.
The Linguists is just over an hour long, but the DVD includes several additional short features on vanishing languages and efforts to preserve them for future speakers or, at least, for future linguists. "It's the breath that you take," one interview subject says of her language. "Without it, you might as well be dead."
Watching The Linguists sent me searching the Internet for a record of the Beothuk lullaby. I eventually found a page that referenced an archived episode of CBC's This Morning. I clicked the link. It was dead.