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A fascination with vanishing languages

In a world that seems relentlessly bent on homogenization, there's something appealing about languages that so perfectly fit the distinctive tribal cultures of their speakers.

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The new year is only a few weeks old, and yet we've already lost a language or two from the face of the earth since 2013 began.

One language vanishes every 14 days, according to National Geographic Magazine. The article from which I learned this did not appear in the absolute latest issue; I'll be coy and say that since Russ Rymer's article "Vanishing Voices" first hit the newsstands, something like 20 languages have died out.

It's not all doom and gloom. In many instances, visiting field linguists have helped capture languages on the brink, logging vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax.

"But saving a language is not something linguists can accomplish," Mr. Rymer writes, "because salvation must come from within." Surviving native speakers need to have pride in their language, if it is to hold its own with Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, or yes, English.

Part of the fascination of reading about these other languages, some with as few as four (yes, four) fluent speakers left, is the windows they provide on their speakers' perception of the world. It may be folklore that Eskimos have 49 or 52 or 100 words for snow. But according to National Geographic, raising sheep, yaks, and goats on the Siberian steppe has given the Tuvan people, who live in the Russian Federation on the Mongolian border, an elaborate vocabulary for livestock, with a single term, for instance, for a "white calf, less than one year."

Not to be topped, the Todzhu herders of southern Siberia have an elaborate vocabulary for their reindeer, with a special term for "a castrated former stud in its fourth year." Former stud? Ouch!


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