I have just become acquainted with the music of Tanya Tagac, a Canadian singer with firm roots in Inuit culture. Her melodies – if they can be called that by western standards – are a blend of feral intensity and heavenly lyricism. But on the whole her songs lack words. They are made of sounds, very often of a guttural nature. Yet, I can’t stop watching this performance of hers here and this clip from her latest album here.
Tanya reminded me
of an article I read recently on the last known speakers of some of the world’s
oldest languages. I am afraid to say that I did not recognise the names Wukchumni, Kusunda and Amurdag. It
probably says more about me than about the languages themselves. Nevertheless, I
did wonder what those last speakers must have felt like. Seeing their lexicon
disappearing in a multilingual horizon, being swallowed up by the likes of English,
Mandarin and… why not? Spanish.
There is a certain romanticism
of mythical proportions in being the last bastion of a cultural phenomenon,
like language in this case. Especially ancient ones in which words are much
more than carriers of meaning. As explained in the article, some languages echo
the voice of the plants, animals and objects around us, from trees to stars. That
is philological magic.
reckon that by the end of the 21st century fifty percent of the
world’s languages will either disappear or remain only on hard drives and online
archives. We are talking vanishing here, not assimilation, not development, not
evolution. A language, one day, will come across a cul-de-sac. And will die. End of the story.
It is not a
surprise that many of these endangered “linguistic species” are to be found in
places like Papua New Guinea and Nepal. Remote places where there is still a
strong connection to the elements, to the natural world and to the spirit. Personally,
I believe that by losing these languages we are also losing a vital link to a
part of humankind whose cultural worth is on a different level completely. Neither
higher nor lower, just different.
I know that there
will be some who will say that this is all part of human evolution. Languages appear
as a need to communicate with one another and with the passing of time, some
become predominant and others are obliterated. My only response would be that a
language covers more than a body of words and systems for them to be used. A language
means more than a distinct manner of conveying ideas. Sometimes, a language is
the only way through which inanimate objects come to life or a singer, like Tanya,
expresses her emotions.
Next Post: “Saturday
Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 23rd
May at 6pm (GMT)