[Paleopsych] Lost In Translation by Soo Ji Min

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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
    of extinction.

    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."

    Related stories:
    [3]The Tongue Who Would Be King
    [4]Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave
    [5]Something New Under the Sun
    [6]Vanishing Voices: What Else is Lost


    3. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=450
    4. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=452
    5. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=454
    6. http://science-spirit.org/articles/Articledetail.cfm?article_ID=453

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