[Paleopsych] Lost In Translation by Soo Ji Min
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Sun Jan 23 18:36:12 UTC 2005
Lost In Translation by Soo Ji Min
Billions of people on this Earth collectively speak thousands of
languages, many of which are endangered. As each tongue slips into
extinction, a unique way of viewing the world goes with it. Along with
the words and sounds, entire traditions and the cultural fabric they
weave may disappear in the process.
Vassilij Gabov leans forward to address the ninety-six-year-old woman
on the other side of the couch. In gravelly Russian, the native
Siberian asks Varvara Budeeva where she's from. There's no answer.
Gabov repeats the question. Still unable to provoke a response, the
heavy-set man moves across the couch and sits directly beside Budeeva.
Seamlessly switching to a different language, he shouts into her ear:
"Where were you born? What clan are you from?"
Had Gabov been wearing a black suit, dark sunglasses, and shiny
wingtip shoes, he might be mistaken for a mobster interrogating a
recalcitrant witness. But his weathered face and soft eyes convey only
the best of intentions. In reality, Gabov lives in Tegul'det, a remote
village in central Siberia. The former truck driver has been hired as
a guide and translator for American linguists spending ten days on a
pilot language expedition in southwestern Siberia. K. David Harrison,
a specialist in Tuvan and other Siberian languages, is searching for
native speakers of Middle Chulym (chew-LIM), a language on the brink
Harrison is having trouble getting started. The first Chulym speaker
he and Gabov located was completely deaf; the second was incoherent.
Budeeva was next on the list, and while she never does answer Gabov's
questions--because, as luck would have it, she too is totally
deaf--she becomes the fourth recorded speaker of Middle Chulym when
she steps outside to wave goodbye to her visitors and speaks the
Chulym word for "dog" while pointing at her pet.
But it is Gabov, whose shift from Russian to Chulym surprises everyone
in the room, who reveals himself as the third, and most intriguing, of
thirty-five native speakers Harrison will find concentrated in six
isolated villages in southwestern Siberia. Just two days earlier,
Gabov spoke only Russian to Harrison. Fearing that his Chulym was
deficient, Gabov kept his knowledge of his native tongue hidden,
leading Harrison to a pair of older Chulym speakers instead. But
spurred as much by Harrison's quest as by the researcher's video
camera and voice recorder, Gabov reached out to Budeeva, and made a
connection through a shared language that had retreated as much from
his mind as from his tongue. And in that instant he became, at
fifty-two years old, the youngest known speaker of Middle Chulym.
"The way you talk identifies the group you belong to," says David
Lightfoot, dean of Georgetown University's Graduate School of Arts and
Sciences and a professor of linguistics. "A language essentially
disappears because people choose at some level of consciousness to
adopt another group's language ... it's an act of allegiance to one
culture and a rejection of another culture."
But more than the rejection of a culture, the death of a language can
be a step toward the death of the culture it expresses and embodies.
Encoded in Middle Chulym, and in every language, are clues to how
people lived--kinship systems, economies, livelihood, and leisure.
"Language conveys evidence of cultural phenomena," says Lightfoot. "If
a language disappears then the cultural evidence disappears also,
because it was only embedded in the language."
Nearly 3,500 of the world's languages are at risk of extinction in one
lifetime--roughly half the world's total. And there's little stopping
the dissolution of the Turkic language that originated on the upper
reaches of the Chulym River in the district of Tomsk. In a community
of 426, only thirty-five elders are fluent speakers. The rest speak
Russian only. "It's a moribund language," says Harrison.
Until he arrived last summer, Harrison, who spends the school year
teaching at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, says the Chulym people
had not been visited by a scientist since a group of Soviet linguists
came through in 1972. Even then, their language had only been written
down by the scientists in a few notebooks and locked away in an
archive. Unless something is done to revive the language and cultivate
it within the younger generation, Chulym, and much of the culture it
reflects, will completely vanish over the next thirty to forty years.
"A working language conveys so much about a culture-- ethics, history,
love, family dynamics--in short: the whole life of a people," says
Diane Ackerman, a visiting professor at Cornell University and author
of An Alchemy of the Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain. "To
lose a single language is like watching a species of animal go extinct
and know it will never occur again on the planet."
Already starting to fade from the Chulym cultural landscape are
ancestral hunting stories that once were verbally shared, retold, and
embellished. Tales about bears, for example, never mentioned the word
"bear" directly, explains Harrison. "They would say `furry one' or
`brown animal.'" For the Chulym, the bear is a mystical animal to be
both feared and respected. It is a powerful symbol, one that demands
special rituals be performed to assuage the bear's spirit. These
rituals formed part of an animistic belief system, which holds that
spirits inhabit inanimate objects--rocks, trees, bodies of water--as
well as living creatures.
But these same tales, told in Russian, are mere skeletons of the
originals. As the Russian language absorbed the Chulym speakers, these
stories were relegated to the recesses of the Chylum minds and
culture, weakening their animistic religious beliefs. At one time,
special practitioners called qam were prevalent in traditional
society. Similar to shamans, they functioned as experts at interacting
with the spirit world, and were called upon in dire situations, such
as serious illness or death. Harrison discovered that at most, only
two people still alive in the community might actually have seen a
shamanic ritual with their own eyes--one of them being Varvara
Budeeva. Shamans disappeared long ago from Chulym society because
native Siberians and Russians were converted to Orthodox Christianity,
which forbade Shamanic practices. "We feel that [animism and
Shamanism] are two really essential elements in their culture and even
though they've mostly been forgotten, there are little scraps left
that you can look at," says Harrison.
Recording these ancient tales on paper, however, may produce nothing
more than additional cultural remnants. Lost in the transition from
the spoken word to the written word is the vibrant history and oral
traditions encoded in the Middle Chulym language. These codes,
according to Harrison, survive only through speech. "The great
majority of the world's languages have no writing system at all, and
they do just fine without it," he says. "No writing system has ever
been devised that is capable of capturing the full complexity and
richness of language." So when a language draws its last breath and
disappears, Harrison worries that a unique way of seeing the world
dies with it--an extinction of ideas. how the mind produces,
processes, and understands language is severely compromised as
languages wither and fade. In order for linguists to answer the
question posed by Noam Chomsky: "What is a possible human language?"
they must examine all human languages. To many linguists, the question
is simply unanswerable if one looks only at major world languages like
Chinese, Russian, or Spanish. Smaller, local languages often provide
evidence of new types of linguistic structures or typologies. In all
languages, for example, a sentence may contain a subject, object, and
a verb--of which six possible configurations exist. Until recently,
Harrison says, linguists had found only five of the six combinations
employed in human language. The discovery of the missing link--object,
verb, then subject--was made by Desmond Derbyshire, who found this
usage in the endangered Amazonian language Hixkaryana.
"The languages that are disappearing are most unusual in their
structures compared to the majority languages that are displacing
them," says Doug Whalen, president of the Connecticut-based Endangered
Language Fund. "There is a global tendency for [majority languages] to
be less complicated than [smaller languages] morphologically. English
has been simplifying its morphology for centuries ... `Thou,' for
example, has disappeared from modern usage."
If these smaller languages go extinct without being documented, warns
Harrison, "we simply will never know the full range of human cognitive
capacity because many of the less likely and rarer types of complex
structures will have disappeared."
Some language experts offer translation as a modern antidote to
language loss. "After all, we can translate pretty well from one
language to another," says Steven Pinker, a linguist and the Johnstone
Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard
University. "During World War II, the Navajo Code Talkers managed to
transfer pretty arcane modern military secrets using the Navajo
But, argues Harrison, specialized knowledge encoded in a native
language and used in a particular context or setting can be lost when
speakers shift from one language to another, more dominant tongue. The
Middle Chulym, for example, once relied on fishing as their primary
means of subsistence. Their language would have reflected this--using
detailed words to describe fishing nets and traps, a fish's lifecycle,
behaviors, body parts--and would have had a fairly complex
classification system. "When the Middle Chulym switch over to speaking
Russian, they lose some of this knowledge," argues Harrison. "It's
very hard to prove, but that's my starting hypothesis--that there are
complex knowledge systems in any language, but especially in languages
where people live very closely to the land and are dependent on it."
Even in situations where a language's structure remains, the way the
native language is used changes, often taking on the speaking style
and attitudes of the more dominant language. "The way we experience
language is not through its structure directly, but the way its
structure gets used in making continuous discourse," explains Michael
Silverstein, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor in the
departments of anthropology, linguistics, and psychology at the
University of Chicago. As a native language group shifts to acquiring
a more dominant one, the replacing language can, over time, wreak
havoc on the weaker language. "It's the subtle ways in which a
culturally distinctive communicative perspective emerges in the
process of actually using language that gets very much transformed and
frequently destroyed over a couple of generations."
After recording a Chulym bear story, for example, Harrison played it
back to a sixteen-year-old with some knowledge of Chulym. The young
listener understood that the story had something to do with a bear,
but nothing more. The key to accessing the rich meaning and history
locked behind a simple tale was lost with the demise of the Chulym
"The kids know their grandparents speak some funny other language, but
they don't know what it is," Harrison says, noting he found just four
"passive speakers" of the language-- all in their mid-thirties--in
addition to the thirty-five fluent speakers. "It's hard to imagine
what it would take exactly to get them interested enough to learn it."
Once marginalized, a language often struggles to survive, but bringing
a language back from the brink of extinction takes intensive effort,
money, and community support. Because the Chuylm community is
impoverished and small, the chances are good that its native language
will die. "When that particular mode of communication disappears, they
will be completely deprived of their own history and culture," says
Naoki Sakai, a professor of Japanese history and literature at Cornell
The Soviet Union's role in the gradual demise of the Chulym language
began in the 1940s when Joseph Stalin ordered Chulym and other
Siberian children to attend boarding schools and prohibited the
instruction of any non-Russian language. As children, Gabov and other
Chulym speakers were effectively forced to abandon their mother
tongue. "Chulym was viewed as a gutter language," explains Gabov,
reverting back to the Russian he is more comfortable speaking. Chulym,
if spoken at all, was confined to the privacy of individual homes.
Ashamed and afraid to speak Chulym in public, many hid their knowledge
of their native tongue, as Gabov did when he first met Harrison.
The plight of the language worsened in the 1970s as the Soviet
government implemented its "village consolidation program," forcibly
relocating the Chulym into larger, Russianspeaking
settlements--further diluting the population base and thinning the
concentration of native speakers.
To some linguists, the shift from Chulym to Russian is as much
evidence of a natural evolution as it is a result of sociopolitical
pressure. While lamenting the potential loss of subject matter and
culture, Lightfoot maintains a scholarly distance. "I don't think
linguists are in a position to say to people, `You should do all you
can to preserve your language.' It's an individual choice and a
Darwinian process. There's not much we [as linguists] should do about
But sometimes the true preferences of native speakers are not readily
apparent to the linguistic community at large. When he found Gabov
last summer, Harrison not only located a driver and a guide, he
discovered a living reminder that language may be banished from the
tongue, but not necessarily from the mind. Growing up in the shadow of
the linguistic repression imposed by the Soviet Union, Gabov had every
reason to completely discard his native tongue--fully and finally
forgetting that part of his heritage. But for a three-year period in
the late 1980s, he did just the opposite. Each day during the winter
hunting season, Gabov made entries into a journal. A written journal.
Developing an orthography adapted from the Russian alphabet, the same
man who for days hid his knowledge of the language Harrison was
seeking actually devised a system of writing it down.
Sadly, the linguistic insecurities Gabov displayed when Harrison first
met him are deep-seated. When Gabov shared his creation with a Russian
acquaintance, he was promptly ridiculed for his attempts. At that
point, Gabov says, he threw away his journal and did not write again.
Any possibility of a written record of the fading language would
likely have died with Gabov's entries had it not been for his chance
meeting with Harrison. Gabov was able to reproduce his system for
Harrison, who, in turn, plans to publish both a children's storybook
and an elementary primer--both written in Middle Chulym, and both at
the request of the Chulym tribal council.
When the storybook is printed next year, it will include an encounter
between Gabov and a moose, along with a bearhunting story and a tale
of a Shamaness, as told by Varvara Budeeva. The text will be augmented
with illustrations drawn by Middle Chulym children who listened to the
stories as read to them in Russian.
While it may be too late to preserve the Chulym language as a medium
for daily communication and repository of traditional knowledge among
the Chulym people, it is not too late to record it, and in so doing
make at least some small part of the knowledge available to future
generations--particularly the young Chulym.
"These languages need to be documented for science," Harrison says,
"and for the native community itself."
The Tongue Who Would Be King
Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave
Something New Under the Sun
Vanishing Voices: What Else is Lost
More information about the paleopsych