Is the world really poorer without Bo?
The death of tribal languages is sometimes a good thing, revealing the itchy dynamism of human society.
Eighty-five-year-old Boa Snr, who died last week, was the last of so many things: she was the last of her family line; she was the last of her tribe – one that had inhabited the Andaman islands in the Bay of Bengal for an estimated 65,000 years – and, perhaps most significantly of all, she was the last person who could speak her tribal language, Bo. As one linguist who was working with her put it: ‘Since she was the only speaker of Bo, she was very lonely as she had no one to converse with.’
Headlines captured the poignancy of this life lived at the end of things. ‘With the death of Boa Sr, her people and their songs fall silent forever’, ran one. ‘Last member dies, it is swan song for an Andaman tribe’, ran another. Such a reaction to Boa Snr’s fate is perhaps understandable. To bear witness to the death of a human collectivity, to see a language pass from being a meaningful mode of interaction to silence, does give one pause to reflect on the finitude of human social forms.
At the same time, however, the death of a language is also a frequently occurring fact of human history, and by no means an undesirable one. As human societies have developed and expanded, as interaction between once isolated peoples has increased, so particular cultures and particular languages have given way to increasingly universal languages. This isn’t just a polite way of talking of bloody conquest either. As one commentator put it: ‘Often people choose to move to the city for work and therefore speak traditional languages less and less. It therefore becomes natural not to teach them to their children.’ In fact, while there might currently be just under 7,000 languages spoken globally, 80 per cent of the world’s population speak just 83 of them.
Yet despite what looks like a progressive development – an overcoming of Babylonian partiality, a movement towards a common language – many in the West today tend to think differently. In the words of Stephen Corry, the director of the tribal peoples’ campaign group Survival International, ‘With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory. Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.’
Views like Corry’s are far from unusual today. BBC News accompanied its report of Boa Snr’s death with a feature entitled ‘The tragedy of dying languages’. Asserting that with language death, we are losing a ‘significant portion of humanity’s intellectual wealth’, the BBC reporter challenges Western complacency: ‘What hubris allows us, cocooned comfortably in our cyber-world, to think that we have nothing to learn from people who a generation ago were hunter-gatherers?’
In fact, over the past couple of decades, the angst-ridden focus on ‘the tragedy of dying languages’ has become an international concern. Following the 1992 International Linguistics Congress in Quebec, at which some called for the UN to promote and sponsor research into dying languages, UNESCO responded by launching the Endangered Languages Project, including a Red Book of Endangered Languages.
In 1995 an International Clearing House for Endangered Languages was established in Tokyo, an Endangered Language Fund instituted in the US, and a Foundation for Endangered Languages was set up in the UK. The opening statement of the American Endangered Language Fund struck a suitably guilt-ridden note: ‘The cultural heritage of many peoples is crumbling while we look on. Are we willing to shoulder the blame for having stood by and done nothing?’ In a piece for the Guardian in 1997, Britain’s foremost linguist, David Crystal, concluded with a cataclysmic flourish: should English continue to expand as it has done, he argued, ‘it will be the greatest intellectual disaster that the planet has ever known’.
Since then, this language anxiety – the fear that we are losing something almost ineffably valuable with each child that learns Spanish instead of their native Indian tongue – has grown. There is of course nothing wrong with wanting to study dead or dying languages. On the contrary, such research is invaluable. After all, without it we’d be lacking the work and wisdom of Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero. Moreover, research into human languages – the syntax, the lexis, the morphology and so on – contributes immeasurably to human self-understanding.
But the concern with dying languages, such as, in this case, Bo, does not seem to born of a thirst for knowledge. Rather it seems to be born of anxiety – anxiety about universality, or what some people refer to as ‘conformity’, which is seen as usurping particularity and subsuming cultural and linguistic differences. Such universalisation is not seen as progressive but threatening, a source not of elite pride, but of UN-endorsed anxiety. Little wonder that David Harrison, author of When Languages Die, frequently uses the terms of environmentalism – that other great testament to elite pessimism – to talk of language change: Alaska’s indigenous languages, for instance, are ‘small islands’ that ‘are being submerged by a rising sea of English’.
That the concern with dying languages has more to do with a contemporary interpretation of social and economic development than it does with language itself is indicated by the emphasis on active language conservation. Professor Anvita Abbi, who heads the centre for linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues: ‘This is the fate of minority languages all over the world. But with proactive effort these languages could have been saved the way some Australian aboriginal tongues were, or Hebrew was.’ Again the metaphors employed to grasp this project of language conservation are revealing. Languages are ‘endangered’, and language study is ‘eco-linguistics’. Particular cultures and communities are viewed here in the same terms as species of plants and animals. But whereas the conservation of animal species keeps them alive, the conservation of tribal languages keeps people as they are. It is not simply conservative, it is restrictive.
The all-too-palpable fear of change, of social and economic development – or ‘globalisation’ to use the most common pejorative – also leads to a misunderstanding of language. It is seen as a static entity, something that can be preserved in aspic. Yet languages are not like that at all. They evolve, mutate, become richer in some instances, and poorer in others. The English we speak today bears little relation to that spoken on the Eurasian steppe in the fifth millennium BC – it bears little relation to that written by Chaucer in the fourteenth century, as many a school student has found to their cost. And that’s because languages are inseparable from the dynamism, or lack thereof, of the societies in which they are used.
The passing of languages spoken by people whose way of life has been rendered obsolete is not a tragedy. Rather it is a mark of our humanity. Cultural and linguistic differences are simply what is. Realising what we have in common, and aspiring to speak a common language, is something that ought to be celebrated, not feared.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Rob Johnston criticised Survival International‘s celebration of tribal life. Lee Jones attacked the eco-colonisation of West Papua. Rob Harris argued it was time to ditch our ‘nostalgia for mud’. De Roy Kwesi Andrew asked why so many Britons are down on development and, in an interview with Brendan O’Neill, told Bob Geldof ‘You are not our messiah’. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.