Endangered Tongues

After my rant on learning Nepali language perhaps it might seem ironic I wanted to post on preserving Nepali languages. Yet even with my own linguistic frustrations, I am a staunch supporter of preserving languages, particularly less spoken ones.

My undergraduate honors thesis was titled: “Imperial Versus Indigenous: Language Usage and Cultural Identity” which looked at the use of English and Swahili in Kenya and French and Wolof in Senegal. I found the topic wildly interesting, particularly the language usage in literature debate between famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (who I’ve mentioned before) and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Achebe in his book of selected essays “Hopes and Impediments” tackles the question of using the colonial language (English) in his novels. His argument is that the history of colonialism gave him the knowledge that enables him to connect to a wider readership, and he would rather use English as a medium to get his message out, rather than a local language that might be read in parts of Nigeria (also important and valuable), but might not bring Nigerian history, culture and issues to a world stage. His books are heavily culture laden, and in some of his later works he incorporates the use of Nigerian pidgin English in character conversations, but he firmly supports the use of English.

Ngugi on the other hand, first became famous with his novels in English, but later swore off the language, and in his final book in English, “Decolonizing the African Mind,” vowed never again to write in any language other than Kiswahili or Kikuyu (his mother tongue). His argument was that authors, particularly successful authors, should support local languages to encourage their continued use and growth in the written word. That authors with important messages valid to the outside world shouldn’t feel shackled by colonial languages because the age old use of translation can help bring their ideas to a wider audience, not to mention create jobs for local people who can translate these works (if it works for Russian or Japanese why not Kikuyu?).

In several essays the two seemed to be talking to each other, always agreeing to disagree with the other’s point of view. I value them both as important African voices, and I can definitely sympathize with each.

As a reader, if a book is not in English, then it is cut off from me. My friend N’s brother in law wrote a bestseller in Nepali, and although the book sits on the bookshelf in my house, I’m currently helpless to appreciate it. (And I’ve been told even if I could read it in English, it would obviously be richer in Nepali). Although not all the literature is accessible by me,  I value the fact that there is a literary culture in Nepal in (an) indigenous language(s).

However the fact that Nepali is, worldwide, a less spoken language and it is hard enough to learn the  official language outside of the country, consider the multitude of other languages spoken in the country that have far less support and infrastructure. Language is a part of culture, the very words of the language help to create the world it exists in, and languages that become extinct snuff out a whole encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge.

So I wanted to point out that The Asia Mag had an interesting article on endangered Nepali languages and what is being done to preserve them. In a country with nearly 29 million people there are 40 languages spoken within its borders, many of which are growing smaller day by day.

While on the topic of language… a few weeks ago there was news of a  new language recently discovered in northern India (NPR feature), and a new book out about seeking out and preserving some of the world’s most endangered languages, “The Last Speakers.”

And lastly, N’s mother, who is also a Nepali author, will be coming to stay with us for the next few weeks. As a budding writer (or writer wanna be) and avid reader, I’m interested to meet her and see what kind of advice and insight she may have.

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4 responses to “Endangered Tongues

  1. Update… N’s mother brought me a copy of N’s brother in law’s book in English! I’ll start reading it tomorrow… and I’ll let you know how it is! Ngugi’s translation theory worked for me this time…

  2. Great post! The Professor who was on NPR and his colleague were also featured in an exciting documentary called The Linguistics. It’s worth checking out.

  3. hello
    I found this topic unexpectedly while i was trying to find ways to run quizz category for
    my readers who are learning french online…thanks for that post, i saved your site address and i will visit it it later
    Regards

  4. Have you read Razib’s thoughts on language diversity? http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/07/knowledge-is-not-value-free/
    I’m rather sympathetic to his views, and would be very interested to hear your take on them as well…

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