Sun 24 May 2009
I’ve just finished listening to a podcast of a seminar put on by the Long Now Foundation, on endangered languages. It was fascinating for many reasons, but just one was the concept put forward that a language is a codified form of the culture that produces it.
For example, the many different words for various trees known to a people indicate a need within their culture to be able to distinguish them, or a culture that uses plant poisons would probably have words for plants that reflect their importance in producing poisons. If you knew what those words were and what they meant, it would give you knowledge. The latest evolution of a culture’s knowledge of the world and philosophy is captured in their language.
Which is why it is a shame when languages die. We don’t just lose a particular way of expression, but potentially also useful learnings about the world.
It reminds me of the story of how ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were decoded after being undecypherable for centuries. Sure, the Rosetta Stone helped, but if it wasn’t for the realisation that the Coptic Language preserved the ancient Egyptian linguistic forms, I suspect we’d only be able to decode a few words and that would be it. In a real way, the culture of the ancient Egyptians is open to us now only because it was carried forward to us in the form of Coptic. If Coptic had died out (and it is nearly extinct), so would’ve our opportunity to understand the ways of an ancient people.